The campaign of Sen. John Kerry yesterday accused NASA of leaking a widely circulated photo that shows the candidate wrapped from top to bottom in a baby blue "bunny suit," implying that it was a "dirty trick."
One campaign official told The Washington Times last night: "All I can say is it was not an authorized release."
But the National Aeronautics and Space Administration told Fox News that the Kerry team saw the photos before publication and passed on their release.
A NASA spokesman told the top-rated cable network that the images were given to the Kerry campaign to review before several were posted on the Kennedy Space Center Web site.
In no way were photographs "leaked," the spokesman said.
But campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill said in an interview with Fox, "This was a leaked photo."
She said the campaign never was told that the photographs, which are drawing ridicule and comparison with the Michael Dukakis "tank" photo on the Internet and talk radio, would be taken during a campaign stop at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
When interviewer Brit Hume asked Miss Cahill whether "you smell a dirty trick here" from the apolitical space agency, she did not answer directly, but rather asked rhetorically: "What do you think?"
"This was a legitimate tour of a NASA facility, and this photograph came out of absolutely nowhere. We were surprised then. We aren't surprised now," she said.
According to the Fox News Web site (www.foxnews.com), the NASA spokesman said the space agency provided a photographer to document Mr. Kerry's tour, but said NASA released no images directly to the press.
Miss Cahill declined to accuse any specific person of "leaking" the photos, which ran on the photo wires of Agence France-Presse, Reuters and the Associated Press, all of which credited the photo to NASA.
The Washington Times was among several papers that ran a color shot of Mr. Kerry emerging from a NASA spacecraft in the head-to-toe anti-contamination gear -- coveralls known as "bunny suits" by space technicians -- on its front page yesterday. Others included the New York Post and Daily News, and even the Brazilian daily Folka de S. Paulo
The photos offered unintended comic relief to yesterday's news coverage.
"Boston, we have a problem," noted the New York Post, which led yesterday's editions with the image taken during the campaign stop.
"The photo was intended to show him as a visionary science fan -- but Republicans pounced on it as a flub, comparing it to tank-riding 1988 nominee Michael Dukakis looking silly in an oversized helmet," the Post explained.
The Republican National Committee immediately pounced, issuing a statement titled "Earth to Kerry," including images of both Mr. Kerry and Mr. Dukakis in the ill-fitting gear, which Republicans played up 16 years ago to illustrate Mr. Dukakis as ill at ease in the military culture.
Even before the leak charges surfaced last night, Democrats were responding in kind.
"My hunch is that the brilliant Republicans who put George Bush in a flight suit to strut around an aircraft carrier won't get very far giving advice to NASA and John Glenn about the kinds of coveralls to wear" on the Space Shuttle Discovery, Kerry campaign spokesman David Wade said yesterday.
"Standing with an American hero, Senator John Glenn, aboard the Discovery, which returned him to space, is a memory to last a lifetime. The Republicans ought to be more worried that Americans keep telling George Bush, 'Houston, we have a problem.'" Mr. Wade added.
The photo also fueled talk among political pundits yesterday.
"Whenever a politician puts on a funny hat, you have to put him on TV," National Public Radio's Mara Liasson said.
Yesterday, the Boston Herald led with Mr. Kerry's NASA photo, asking, "Who was the advance man who approved this get-up?"
"Can he do the moonwalk?" the National Journal's Hotline asked yesterday.
"All politicians, stop getting in outfits. Just stop it," NBC's Tim Russert commented to "Today Show" host Katie Couric after she complained that "Rupert Murdoch publications" were making light of Mr. Kerry's space duds.
Victor Morton contributed to this report.