INDEPENDENCE, MO. — Sen. Barack Obama said Monday that no candidate should use patriotism as a "political sword" in the presidential race, vowing to push back against charges that he is not fervent about his country.
Yet even as Obama repeated his call for a new brand of politics that avoids personal attacks, the day was dominated by an old-style clash over the military credentials of his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain.
Supporters of the two candidates traded accusations of shabby campaigning, a squabble that evoked memories of the infamous "Swift boat" allegations that dogged Democrat John F. Kerry's campaign in 2004.
Obama distanced himself from that dispute. In a speech here, Obama said he would not let anyone question his patriotism. At the same time, he declared off-limits any attacks on McCain's record as a Vietnam War veteran.
McCain, he said, "endured physical torment in service to our country. . . . And let me also add that no one should ever devalue that service, especially for the sake of a political campaign, and that goes for supporters on both sides."
Yet even as Obama spoke, a back-and-forth raged over McCain's military record.
McCain supporters held a conference call with reporters in which they denounced comments made Sunday by an Obama backer, retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark.
Speaking on CBS' "Face the Nation," Clark took direct aim at what is often viewed as McCain's greatest strength: military acumen.
Clark said that McCain was "untested and untried."
When moderator Bob Schieffer said that unlike McCain, Obama had not been shot down in a fighter plane, Clark replied:
"Well, I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president."
McCain often has joked on the campaign trail that getting captured by the Vietnamese was no great feat.
At a news conference Monday in Harrisburg, Pa., however, McCain struck back at Clark. "I think that that kind of thing is unnecessary," McCain said. "I am proud of my record of service, and I have plenty of friends and leaders who will attest to that."
On their morning conference call with reporters, McCain supporters -- calling themselves the "truth squad" -- accused the Obama campaign of denigrating McCain's service as a naval aviator.
Air Force Col. George E. "Bud" Day, a Medal of Honor recipient who was McCain's cellmate in North Vietnam, said Clark's "backhanded slap" was "one of the more surprising insults in my military history." Day was a member of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group that led a campaign to challenge accounts of Kerry's performance in Vietnam.
Day rejected a comparison between the work of the "Swift boat" veterans and the comments by Clark.
"The Swift boat, quote, attacks were simply a revelation of the truth; the similarity does not exist here," Day said.
Weighing in, Kerry -- an Obama supporter -- said that Day's comments "only further highlight the McCain campaign's disregard for a new kind of politics." He noted that McCain had denounced the 2004 attacks on Kerry as "dishonest and dishonorable" and called on him to condemn Day's remarks.
As the debate over duty and service played out, Obama made the case for his own patriotism.
Speaking against a blue backdrop adorned with four large American flags, the presumptive Democratic nominee said that his political opponents had unfairly sought to stoke fears about his devotion to the U.S.
He wore a flag lapel pin, an increasingly common Obama accessory.
"I have found, for the first time, my patriotism challenged -- at times as a result of my own carelessness, more often as a result of the desire by some to score political points and raise fears about who I am and what I stand for," Obama said.
In making patriotism a focus, Obama seemed intent on addressing a potential vulnerability. McCain was held captive during the Vietnam War for 5 1/2 years. Polls have shown that some Americans think Obama shares the values of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., a caustic critic of U.S. policies in some of his past sermons.
"I will never question the patriotism of others in this campaign," Obama told a cheering crowd of 1,150 in the city where Democratic President Harry S. Truman was raised. "And I will not stand idly by when I hear others question mine."
After a tour of Truman's home, Obama spoke briefly about why he chose the location for his speech: "It's a place where I think there's not a lot of pretense or fuss or trying to use patriotism in ways that divide us. So I thought it was an appropriate site."
In his speech, Obama sought to define patriotism, suggesting that military service is not the only criterion for patriotic feeling.
He mentioned that his grandmother worked on bomber assembly lines during World War II, while his grandfather served in the Army.
When he was a 4-year-old in Indonesia, he said, his mother would read him "the first lines of the Declaration of Independence."
"That is why, for me, patriotism is always more than just loyalty to a place on a map or a certain kind of people," he said. "Instead, it is also loyalty to America's ideals."
Nicholas reported from Independence, Mo., and Reston from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Robin Abcarian contributed to this report.