Hastert contests Kerry's criticism


WASHINGTON -- Rep. Dennis Hastert, the speaker of the House, is taking issue with a political appeal sent out by Sen. John Kerry, saying the senator falsely accused him of labeling Rep. John P. Murtha a coward.

"Senator Kerry's comments used for campaign fundraising purposes are simply over the top, extremely inappropriate and factually incorrect," said Ron Bonjean, a spokesman for Hastert, referring to a Nov. 18 e-mail message Kerry's political committee sent to supporters.

But an adviser to the Massachusetts Democrat said he was comfortable with his characterization of the speaker's reaction to a call by Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat, for a withdrawal of troops from Iraq. The adviser, Jenny Backus, said Republicans were trying to regroup after early criticism of Murtha, a decorated Marine veteran, backfired.

"There is no question that the Republicans mounted an attack on John Murtha," said Backus, a consultant who works with Kerry on his Web site. "They are trying to rewrite history."

The back-and-forth illustrates the political turmoil sparked by Murtha's proposal and how it has evolved into a proxy for dueling party positions on Iraq.

It also shows that Kerry absorbed some lessons from his 2004 presidential campaign, when he was criticized as not responding quickly enough to attacks on his service in Vietnam by a group called the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

In the e-mail to supporters the day after Murtha's announcement and a later barrage of hostile Republican reaction, Kerry referred to his own experience. "You and I have to make it absolutely clear that we won't stand for Republican `Swift Boat' style attacks on Jack Murtha," he said.

"Dennis Hastert - the speaker of the House, who never served - accused Jack Murtha of being a coward," Kerry said as he listed Republican attacks on Murtha.

Backus said that comment was based on news reports and the general tone of an initial statement released by the office of Hastert, an Illinois Republican.

It said that America "must not cower" in fighting the war on terror and that Murtha and other Democrats "want us to wave the white flag of surrender."

But Bonjean noted that Hastert did not use the term directly about Murtha and expressed his strong respect for the lawmaker while differing with him on Iraq policy. In his blog, Hastert wrote last week: "I need everyone to understand that I have known congressman Murtha a long time. He's a good man."

Bonjean also responded to the assertion by Kerry and others that Republicans who did not serve in the military have no credibility to take on Murtha. "One does not have to serve in the military to recognize that the policy of retreat and defeat is the wrong approach," he said.

Backus disputed the claim that Kerry was taking advantage of the fight over Iraq policy to raise money for his political operations.

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