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McCain Decries Ad, Vouches for Kerry

August 06, 2004|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — While remaining committed to President Bush's reelection, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Thursday rose to the defense of Sen. John F. Kerry, castigating the sponsors of a new television commercial that questions the military service of the Democratic presidential nominee.

McCain said the 60-second advertisement, which began running Thursday in three battleground states, misrepresents the record of Kerry, a decorated Naval officer who commanded a Swift boat on the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War.

Kerry has made his service a central part of his presidential bid, surrounding himself with his former crewmates on the campaign trail and repeatedly invoking his time in Vietnam. But a group called `Swift Boat Veterans for Truth announced this week that it was spending $500,000 to air an ad disparaging his record.

The commercial features a several veterans who served in close proximity to Kerry in Vietnam and who accuse him of lying about his wartime injuries. None of them were on Kerry's Swift boat, and several of Kerry's crewmates have condemned the charges as politically motivated fabrications.

McCain, who spent five years in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp, joined the criticism in comments to Associated Press. "I deplore this kind of politics," McCain said. "I think the ad is dishonest and dishonorable.... None of these individuals served on the boat [Kerry] commanded. Many of his crew have testified to his courage under fire."

McCain spokeswoman Crystal Benton confirmed that the statements attributed to McCain were accurate, but that he would not be available for further comment.

Lawyers for Kerry's campaign and the Democratic National Committee sent letters to about 20 televisions stations in the seven markets where the veterans' group bought time for the commercial, calling the ad "an inflammatory, outrageous lie."

The lawyers asked the stations to refuse to air the ad and warned that if they did air them, they could be held responsible for "false and libelous charges made by this sponsor."

Two stations in Wisconsin and one in Iowa decided not to run the commercial after receiving the letter, said Michael Meehan, a Kerry campaign spokesman.

The founder of the veterans group defended the commercial.

"We respect Sen. McCain's right to express his opinion, and we hope he extends to us the same respect and courtesy, particularly since we served with John Kerry, we knew him well and Sen. McCain did not," said retired Rear Admiral Roy Hoffmann.

The group's major financial backer, Robert J. Perry, is a Houston homebuilder and major contributor to Republicans in Texas.

McCain's comments about the ad followed his appearance Wednesday at a rally for Bush in Jacksonville, Fla. The juxtaposition underscored the unusual role he has played in this year's presidential campaign.

Both sides have sought to identify with him. He made a widely publicized joint campaign appearance with Bush in Washington state and Nevada in June, and the president's campaign featured McCain in a recent ad.

But Kerry frequently mentions his friendship with McCain on the campaign trail, and he flirted with the notion of asking the GOP senator to join his ticket.

McCain, meanwhile, has made clear that in campaigning for Bush, he would not criticize Kerry. And he has defended Kerry from GOP claims that the Democrat is weak on defense issues.

McCain "was a Naval officer before he was a Republican politician, and while he's loyal to his party, he's also loyal to fellow veterans," said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

In the Associated Press interview, McCain said the new anti-Kerry ad was reminiscent of the tactics used against him by Bush allies during their often bitter fight for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000.

"It was the same kind of deal that was pulled on me," said McCain. He urged the Bush campaign to condemn the ad, and added that "it reopens all the old wounds of the Vietnam War, which I spent the last 35 years trying to heal."

The White House and the Bush campaign declined to criticize the commercial.

"We are only responsible for the advertisements of Bush-Cheney 2004," said campaign spokesman Terry Holt.

"The Bush campaign has never questioned John Kerry's service in the military and we never will."

Some political experts said that McCain's defense of Kerry could benefit Bush.

"I think the thing about McCain that voters find so compelling is that he's not a knee-jerk partisan," said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "This is a guy with a reputation for standing up for what he believes in, and he's in Bush's corner."

Times staff writers Scott Gold and Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.

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