Democrats began a weeklong attack on Vice President Dick Cheney’s record yesterday, with party chief Terry McAuliffe calling him “the last guy who should be lecturing John Kerry” and a Democrat-leaning group suggesting that Mr. Cheney’s wife became pregnant to help her husband avoid serving in Vietnam.
Mr. McAuliffe, speaking at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, called Mr. Cheney “the Bush campaign’s attack dog in chief,” and questioned whether he had the credentials to make his speech yesterday criticizing Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry’s voting record on defense — policywise as well as personally.
“When he was secretary of defense, Dick Cheney consistently proposed massive cuts to weapons programs that our troops are using right now in Iraq,” Mr. McAuliffe said, pointing to Mr. Cheney’s support while defense secretary in the previous Bush administration for cutting the M-1 tank, the B-2 bomber, AH-64 Apache helicopters and the F-16 fighter.
Mr. McAuliffe then questioned Mr. Cheney’s personal qualifications.
“You remember Dick Cheney,” he said. “When John Kerry was risking his life for his country in Vietnam, Dick Cheney was getting deferments because, in his words, he had ‘other priorities than military service.’”
The vice president has become the go-to man when President Bush’s re-election campaign needs an authoritative voice to challenge Mr. Kerry on defense.
In a speech in Fulton, Mo., yesterday, the site of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech, the vice president said Mr. Kerry’s voting record is a long trail of supporting defense and intelligence cuts.
But a Democratic strategist said that if Republicans are going to use Mr. Cheney, Democrats want to ensure that they call his credibility into question.
“It’s push-back. The guy went out there today trying to whack Kerry on this. It’s sort of a ‘glass houses’ type of situation,” said the strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Polls show that Mr. Cheney is slightly less popular than Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry.
The most recent bipartisan Battleground Poll, released April 14, found Mr. Cheney with a 48 percent favorable rating and a 36 percent unfavorable rating. Ten percent of the 1,000 likely voters surveyed had no opinion about him.
Mr. Bush was rated favorably by 51 percent and unfavorably by 46 percent, and Mr. Kerry was viewed favorably by 52 percent and unfavorably by 38 percent.
The Kerry campaign said yesterday that Mr. Cheney was “smearing John Kerry’s patriotism,” and Mr. McAuliffe said Democrats have learned from past elections that they must answer such charges instantly and forcefully.
“We shockingly saw what they did to Max Cleland in 2002,” Mr. McAuliffe said of the former Democratic senator from Georgia, who lost his seat after a barrage of ads criticizing him for supporting a filibuster to delay creating the Department of Homeland Security.
“We remember how their ads put Max Cleland’s face next to Osama bin Laden’s and told America that a triple amputee who fought in Vietnam would not defend the security of his country,” he said.
Mr. McAuliffe also questioned Mr. Cheney’s ties to Halliburton, pointing to “over $7 billion in no-bid contracts to rebuild Iraq” that the company has been awarded. The Kerry campaign and outside Democrats say they will raise Halliburton and the energy task force throughout the week.
Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said Mr. Cheney gave a “very serious policy speech” and that Mr. McAuliffe chose to respond “in the most personal way.”
“They would rather talk about anything other than the votes [Mr. Kerry] cast,” Mr. Gillespie said.
Meanwhile, Democrat-leaning political organizations took up the charges yesterday, with one group suggesting that Mr. Cheney’s wife, Lynne, became pregnant to help her husband avoid serving in Vietnam.
Mr. Cheney received five deferments, the first four because he was in school.
But the Thunder Road Group, a consultancy working for America Coming Together, one of the Democrat-leaning “Section 527” political operations, said Mr. Cheney’s fifth deferment came when his wife became pregnant.
The group noted that the rules governing the draft changed Oct. 26, 1965, to allow married, childless men to be drafted.
Mr. Cheney received a deferment three months later on the grounds that his wife was pregnant. The Cheneys’ first child, Elizabeth, was born, the group noted, “nine months and two days after childless men were deemed eligible for the draft.”
The accusation that Mr. Cheney used the pregnancy to avoid serving in Vietnam was made in the 2000 campaign, and resurfaced in a March opinion article on Slate.com and several Web discussion forums, including one sponsored by Mother Jones magazine.
But as Mr. Cheney has raised his profile on defense issues, Democrats said the charge is worth examining.
“The facts are out there, and we’re just presenting them. It looks as if a little bit more went into the Cheney family-planning decision, but who knows,” said Sarah Leonard, a spokeswoman for the Thunder Road Group.
“For Dick Cheney, who did everything he could to avoid serving in Vietnam, to attack John Kerry, a man who had the courage to put his life on the line, is a new low,” she said.
The Bush campaign was outraged at the pregnancy charges.
“This is an outrageous and despicable attack, and Senator Kerry should repudiate it,” spokesman Scott Stanzel said.