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Kerry Gets Some Help From GOP Senator

March 22, 2004|From a Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Sen. Charles Hagel of Nebraska on Sunday became the second Republican senator to break ranks with the Bush-Cheney campaign's characterization of John F. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, as soft on defense issues.

Hagel joined fellow Vietnam veteran Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in criticizing ads sponsored by the Bush campaign that call Kerry, a senator from Massachusetts who also is a Vietnam veteran, "weak on defense."

"The facts just don't measure [up to]the rhetoric," Hagel said on ABC's "This Week."

One ad includes video footage of Kerry in West Virginia last week, responding to a charge that he had failed to support U.S. troops in Iraq by opposing the $87-billion military funding bill last fall. "I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it," he said -- a phrase the Bush campaign seized upon as showing the Massachusetts senator flip-flopping on issues.

"You can take a guy like John Kerry, who's been in the Senate for 19 years, and go through that voting record," Hagel said. "You can take it with ... any of us, and pick out different votes, and then try to manufacture something around that."

Kerry's staff said he was trying to indicate his support for an amendment funding the appropriation from increased taxes on the wealthiest Americans. When that amendment failed, he voted against the bill.

Discussing the Bush campaign charges, McCain told the "Today" show on Thursday, "I do not believe that he is, quote, weak on defense. He's responsible for his voting record, as we are all responsible for our records, and he'll have to explain it. But, no, I do not believe that he is necessarily weak on defense."

That show of support added to earlier speculation that McCain might bolt the GOP to join the Democratic ticket -- an idea he emphatically shot down Sunday by saying: "I will not leave the Republican Party -- end of story."

Appearing on "Fox News Sunday," McCain was joined by Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) in decrying what Lieberman called the "tit-for-tat partisan attack" coming from each campaign last week. In sharp comments from both sides Thursday, Vice President Dick Cheney questioned Kerry's fitness to serve as commander in chief, while Kerry accused President Bush of overextending U.S. troops overseas and alienating U.S. allies.

"If it stays with this tone -- and it is the tone of the campaigns as much as it is specific words -- [if] the tone doesn't change, you're going to see low voter turnout, particularly amongst young Americans, and that's not healthy," said McCain, a primary challenger in 2000.

"Let's keep it civil, so we don't get so nasty that we discourage people from coming out and voting in a very important election," said Lieberman, who sought the Democratic presidential nomination this year. "Don't say that the opposition is evil. They may be wrong, but they're not evil."

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