A television ad that has aired in three key battleground states and a new book have created a political furor over John F. Kerry's Vietnam War record, calling into question his character, credibility and a central tenet of his campaign -- that his combat experience helps qualify him to be president.
The ad, the book and the people behind them have become staples of conservative talk shows and Internet sites. The claims -- that Kerry lied about his war experiences, didn't deserve his medals and betrayed soldiers everywhere by protesting the war after serving in it -- also have been recited in the mainstream media, along with denials of the allegations.
What military documentation exists and has been made public generally supports the view put forth by Kerry and most of his crewmates -- that he acted courageously and came by his Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts honestly. This view of Kerry as war hero is supported by all but one of the surviving veterans who served with him on the two boats he commanded.
None of the critics quoted in the ad actually served on the boats with Kerry. Some of them also have given contradictory accounts and offered conflicting recollections.
But what actually happened about 35 years ago along the remote southern coast of Vietnam remains murky. Some of Kerry's own recollections over the years, as presented in two biographies and many interviews, also have been inconsistent.
Most of the documents offered by critics of the Democratic candidate are signed affidavits by 13 Swift boat veterans -- notarized memories of events that they say they witnessed from a boat or two away.
The Kerry campaign has launched a vociferous defense, denying the charges raised in the ad. It also denounced the group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, as a Republican-backed effort. His staff has directed critics to the Massachusetts senator's military records, which have been posted on his website.
"The Swift boat ad is full of lies. Thirteen men who never served with John Kerry lie about knowing him and viciously attack his record," said Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill in an e-mail to supporters last week. "It is a new low for the Republicans."
A liberal independent organization is weighing in on the controversy with a new ad today, demanding that President Bush urge that the ad be taken off the air.
The Bush campaign, for its part, says it has nothing to do with the Swift boat group attacking Kerry and has kept a distance -- neither endorsing nor denouncing the ad, which is airing in Ohio, Wisconsin and West Virginia. When asked about it Thursday on "Larry King Live," Bush said he had not seen it.
Kerry, long accused of hair-splitting and nuance in his political positions, has left himself open to criticism by giving subtly varying accounts over the years of his Vietnam service and postwar activism. But his critics also have provided conflicting recollections.
"War is by definition chaotic, and people are not taking notes in battle," said Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "In terms of the type of evidence that might be ideal for making a convincing case, there probably are some holes. They give an opening for people who want to say Kerry was embellishing."
Members of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth say they have received $300,000 in new donations since the ad began airing Aug. 5. The group's initial ad buy was $500,000.
The group's leaders confirmed that Robert J. Perry, a Texas homebuilder, was their biggest original financier. Perry has given money to Bush's last four campaigns and is a major GOP donor in Texas.
John O'Neill, a former Swift boat commander who served in Vietnam and a longtime Kerry foe, has been promoting his book -- "Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry" -- on cable-TV talk shows such as "Crossfire" and "Hardball." The book, which amplifies the charges in the ad, began trickling into stores last week. It already tops the Amazon.com bestseller list, and a chapter has been posted on a conservative website.
It is too soon to tell whether the claims are resonating with voters, but political observers say they could pose a serious risk for the Democratic candidate, particularly in such a close race.
"If the attacks on [Kerry's] character continue and they start to take hold with swing voters and casual voters, it would be a big problem," said Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of a nonpartisan political newsletter. "The Kerry folks can't concede this.... A charge like this that's ignored is a charge that's believed."
The anti-Kerry ad begins with footage of Sen. John Edwards, Kerry's running mate, saying, "If you have any question about what John Kerry's made of, just spend three minutes with the men who served with him 30 years ago."