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Friday, August 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Kerry fights back over ads criticizing his Navy service

By Gromer Jeffers Jr
The Dallas Morning News

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., told the International Association of Fire Fighters Convention in Boston, "I'm not going to let anyone question my commitment to defending America — then, now or ever."
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BOSTON — Dogged by a television attack ad and book questioning his military record, John Kerry struck back yesterday by accusing President Bush of relying on a "front group" to "do his dirty work."

"I'm not going to let anyone question my commitment to defending America — then, now or ever," Kerry told the International Association of Fire Fighters in Boston. "I'm not going to let anyone attack the sacrifice and courage of the men who saw battle with me."

The comments, Kerry's first about the accusations from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, came as his campaign released a new TV ad countering the charges. It features Jim Rassmann, the Green Beret whom Kerry pulled from the water in Vietnam., a liberal group, has aired an ad accusing Bush of using family connections to avoid the Vietnam War.

Kerry again called on Bush to condemn the Swift Boat Veterans ad, which accuses Kerry of lying about his Vietnam service and not deserving his medals. He also threatened to turn the debate back toward Bush's disputed service in the Texas Air National Guard.

"The president keeps telling people he would never question my service to our country; instead, he watches as a Republican-funded attack group does just that," Kerry said. "If he wants to have a debate about our service in Vietnam, here's my answer: Bring it on."

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the president denounces all ads from independent groups and wants Kerry to do the same.

"Senator Kerry knows that his latest attack is false and baseless," McClellan said from Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas. "The president has condemned all of the ads by the shadowy groups."

The Swift Boat Veterans said that they planned to release a new ad today.

Van Odell, a Navy veteran who appeared in the first ad, said he welcomed Kerry's challenge.

"I don't care how this affects the election," Odell said, although he conceded he doesn't want Kerry as president. "It's about getting the truth out. The public needs to know the truth about John Kerry."

The ferocious response — two weeks after the Swift Boat Veterans' ad debuted in closely contested Ohio, West Virginia and Wisconsin — came amid evidence that the ad and the attention it has drawn may be having an impact on Kerry's candidacy. An independent researcher reported this week that undecided voters viewed Kerry more negatively after viewing the 60-second spot, and a new CBS poll found Bush leading Kerry 55 percent to 37 percent among veterans. The two were tied at 46 percent after last month's Democratic convention.
Kerry spent about four months in 1968-69 commanding two Navy Swift boats. He has focused much of his presidential campaign on that service, trying to woo the nation's 26 million veterans and position himself as the better choice for commander in chief in a time of war.

"Thirty years ago official Navy reports documented my service in Vietnam and awarded me the Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts," Kerry said. "Thirty years ago this was the plain truth ... and I still carry the shrapnel in my leg from a wound in Vietnam."

While the Bush campaign and other Republicans have been careful not to question his service, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have aimed directly at it. They contend Kerry should not have received his first Purple Heart and was not under enemy fire when he rescued Rassmann.

A book co-authored by Houston lawyer John O'Neill, a longtime Kerry nemesis, also contends Kerry lied when he said he spent one Christmas Eve in Cambodia. Kerry since has said he was in Cambodia, but not on Christmas Eve.

But the credibility of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth has been frequently questioned. None of the men in the ad served on the same boat as Kerry; some were on other craft in the same group of Swift boats. Several members of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth also have appeared to contradict themselves, including some in Kerry's chain of command who gave the lieutenant strong performance reviews. The group's ties to Republicans also have prompted criticisms, including from Kerry yesterday.

"They're a front for the Bush campaign, and the fact that the president won't denounce what they're up to tells you everything you need to know," Kerry said. "He wants them to do his dirty work."

Kerry campaign aides had hoped reaction to the commercial, which has been hotly debated on cable TV news shows, would run out of steam. O'Neill, though, told Fox News this week that his group would not drop the issue, even if Bush asks it to do so.

Kerry for weeks had remained silent as his campaign scurried to respond to his opponent's attacks about his war service. After consulting with high-level aides, however, Kerry chose yesterday to respond, aides said.

"He decided he wasn't going to take it anymore," said Stephanie Cutter, a campaign spokeswoman. "When you're watching your record being dragged through the mud, it makes you want to get up and fight."

Beyond his anger was the issue of whether the ad is working. A poll of undecided voters showed that 27 percent of those who were leaning toward Kerry had second thoughts after viewing the ad.

"It was negative, but it was effective," said Glenn Kessler, managing partner of HCD Research, which conducted the survey. "People had negative emotions over it. It eroded Kerry's support, but didn't effect Bush."

Independents also had questions about the Swift Boat Veterans' credibility, but they found the ad memorable, the firm reported.

Information about the ad was provided by The Associated Press; the CBS poll was reported by The Washington Post.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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