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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Kerry Allies Take Shots at Bush, Cheney on Vietnam

The decorated veteran, angered at the campaign to discredit his service, lets his surrogates do the disparaging of his rivals' records on this day.

September 05, 2004|Matea Gold and Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writers

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — After being targeted for weeks by criticisms of his service in Vietnam and his later protests of the war, Sen. John F. Kerry looked on Saturday as a series of his supporters lambasted President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for avoiding combat service during those years.

Rep. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio) made the strongest attack at an evening rally here on the banks of the Ohio River, saying that Kerry "was carrying a gun through the jungles of Vietnam while George Bush was neglecting his military service and carrying out his responsibility as a cheerleader at Yale University."

That prompted both laughter and boos from a crowd of several hundred.

After graduating from Yale, Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard and on temporary assignment in Alabama during the Vietnam War. He received an honorable discharge, leaving the Guard early to attend Harvard Business School. But records have never clearly detailed how he completed his service during his time in Alabama.

The sharp commentary by Strickland and three other Kerry supporters during a long day of campaigning appeared to be part of a Democratic strategy to have surrogates try to tar Bush's status as commander in chief, while freeing Kerry to focus on job creation and other domestic issues.

The Republicans, for their part, continued to paint Bush on Saturday as a decisive leader who was far better prepared than Kerry to protect the United States from terrorist attacks.

Vice President Dick Cheney made the case before a friendly audience in Roswell, N.M.

Cheney derided Kerry's claims that Bush was too quick to use force in Iraq, and that the administration's Iraqi policies have increased the risk of further terrorism.

"That is a fundamental misunderstanding of the way the world we are living in works," Cheney said. "Terrorist attacks are not caused by the use of strength. They are invited by the perception of weakness."

Cheney then echoed remarks he made about Kerry at last week's Republican National Convention: "These are not times for leaders who shift with the political winds, saying one thing one day and doing another the next. A senator can be wrong for 20 years without consequence to the nation. A president? The president always casts the deciding vote."

Kerry and his allies were especially angered by the first ad by a group of Vietnam veterans opposed to Kerry that disparaged his war record. The vast bulk of military reports from the time and virtually all of those who served closest to Kerry have refuted the ad's charges. But polls suggest that the commercial and two subsequent ones criticizing his protests of the Vietnam war have tainted the public's view of Kerry.

The latest responses from the Kerry camp came not from the Democratic presidential candidate himself, but from those who stood beside him as he campaigned across Ohio.

At a rally at an Akron baseball stadium, Mayor Don Plusquellic said Bush hid from his duties.

"The simple truth is, John Kerry was in Vietnam and George Bush wasn't," Plusquellic said. "George Bush was hiding in the woods in Alabama and John Kerry was defending our country."

As the audience whooped and whistled, Kerry stood behind the mayor, his hands clasped, smiling.

Prior to Kerry's arrival at the rally, John Wagner, a local labor leader, said: "In the last four years, George Bush has served the American worker in the same way he served the Texas National Guard -- he was absent without leave."

Similar barbs flew in Steubenville, including Strickland's cheerleader remark, which he made while noting that Bush did not serve in Vietnam.

"We've got to remember, my friends, that John Kerry is the one who chose to go to Vietnam," Strickland said, "and Dick Cheney and Ted Strickland and a whole lot of other people made a different choice."

Cheney received four student deferments during the Vietnam War, and another when he became a father

Appearing with Strickland was Gerald McEntee, national president of the American Federation of State, Municipal and County Employees. Referring to medals Kerry won in Vietnam, he said of Bush and Cheney: "Who are they to question an individual who earns three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star? He's a patriot!"

McEntee concluded: "They have the wannabes. We have the real deal."

A Kerry spokesman said the campaign had neither written nor approved the comments, but the candidate made only a mild attempt on the stage in Steubenville to disclaim the shots.

"I really don't want this race to be brought down to a place that's personal," Kerry said. "And I don't worry about those attacks. They want this race to be about what might or might not have happened 35 years ago. They want it to be about attacks on me."

Earlier in the day in Akron, Kerry had voiced a certain ambivalence for the campaign's toughening tone. After the crowd began chanting his name, Kerry said that if Republicans "think they've seen the wood, we're going to take the wood to them over the course of these next two months."

He hastened to add: "And we're going to do it nicely, because America deserves a real conversation about the choices that affect your lives."

Campaigning with Cheney in New Mexico, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) sharply rebuked charges that Bush and Cheney's lack of combat experience made them unfit to lead.

"I'm sorry to have to repeat this for the thousandth time," said McCain, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. "The Vietnam War was over 30 years ago. We have a war in Iraq to fight. President Bush served honorably; John Kerry served honorably. End of story."

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