NEW YORK — A Vietnam veterans group opposed to John F. Kerry launched a television commercial in Florida on Tuesday that condemns the Democratic presidential nominee for tossing away medals during a Vietnam War protest more than 30 years ago.
The expansion of the anti-Kerry advertising came a day after Republicans gathered for their convention sought to stoke the debate over Kerry's service in Vietnam and his antiwar activities afterward.
On Monday, the first day of the convention, delegates sported bandages with purple heart logos -- a jab at the three Purple Hearts Kerry was awarded for wounds sustained during his Vietnam service as a Navy Swift boat officer. Anti-Kerry activists have suggested that his injuries did not merit such recognition.
In an interview with CNN on Monday, former President George H.W. Bush said the complaints against Kerry by the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were "rather compelling." He also said that Kerry had "served honorably."
The military documentation that exists generally supports the view put forth by Kerry that he behaved courageously and deserved his Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Hearts.
All but one of the surviving veterans who served with Kerry on the two boats he commanded have backed Kerry's version of events.
The anti-Kerry group's new 30-second ad is its third to appear on television. The group said it was spending $385,000 to run the ad this week in Florida and another $35,000 to air it in Nashville while Kerry speaks to an American Legion convention there.
The Swift boat group also said it was spending $800,000 to re-run a previous ad -- critical of Kerry's antiwar testimony to the Senate in 1971 -- on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News Channel and the History Channel.
The first Swift boat ad, aired in Wisconsin, Ohio and West Virginia, challenged Kerry's account of actions in 1968 and 1969 that led to him receiving a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
The group sent the Massachusetts senator a letter Tuesday offering to cease its advertisements if he would issue a public statement of agreement with its version of disputed events in the Mekong Delta 35 years ago.
The new ad shows an American flag, the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial as a narrator intones: "Symbols. They represent the best things about America: freedom, valor, sacrifice. Symbols, like the heroes they represent, are meant to be respected."
The ad shows footage of a 1971 antiwar rally in which some demonstrators are shown throwing medals over a fence. Kerry does not appear to be in the clip, though he participated in the rally.
The ad then shows Kerry telling a TV interviewer a few days later that the protest sought to "renounce the symbols which this country gives." Kerry adds: "I gave back -- I can't remember -- six, seven, eight, nine."
Kerry told The Times earlier this year that he tossed his military ribbons at the protest -- not his medals -- but that he also tossed medals given to him by other veterans.
The Swift boat group, which had seed money from major Republican donors with ties to Bush, said Tuesday it was unconcerned about whether the Vietnam debate would dovetail with the president's message this week in New York.
"The truth is, if it detracts from the Republican convention or if it adds, we could care less," said John O'Neill, a spokesman for the group and author of an anti-Kerry book, "Unfit for Command." "Let the chips fall where they may."
So far, O'Neill said, the group has raised more than $3 million.
In a statement, Kerry spokesman Chad Clanton placed blame for the continuing dispute on the president: "By refusing to specifically condemn this smear, George W. Bush is insulting the military service not only of John Kerry but all veterans who have served this nation. President Bush could stop this smear right now. Yet he still refuses to heed Sen. McCain's call to specifically condemn it."
Democrats said Tuesday that the delegates' mocking of Kerry's Purple Hearts was an insult to all veterans. The leader of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, who said he was unaffiliated with either side in the campaign, also expressed dismay.
Purple Heart winners, said Robert Lichtenberger, the order's national commander, were "outraged" that the award would be "denigrated by using it for the purpose of political advantage."
Republican officials said the bandage was the idea of Virginia delegate Morton Blackwell, not of the party.
So far, the president, who served in the Texas Air National Guard during the war and was not sent to Vietnam, has praised Kerry's military service generally but has not condemned specific ads by the Swift boat group.
In an interview with CNN, Bush's chief political advisor, Karl Rove, appeared to echo the criticism raised by the anti-Kerry group, saying that even people who defend Kerry's Vietnam record "feel strongly about what he did when he came back" to the United States "to tarnish their good service."
"I'm speaking as the nephew of a decorated Vietnam veteran," Rove said.
"And I'll leave it up to the president to say what he wants to say on it."
Rove, who was old enough to be drafted during that war, has said he drew a low draft number upon high school graduation in 1969 and then received a student deferment when he entered the University of Utah.
Asked about Kerry's Vietnam record, Vice President Dick Cheney, who obtained multiple deferments during the war, told a syndicated radio program Tuesday that he couldn't pass judgment.
"I didn't have to serve in Vietnam," Cheney said on "The Sean Hannity Show."
"And I try to make it a point always to thank those who did for their service."