The White House yesterday distanced itself from a political ad that questions John Kerry’s Vietnam service and called on the Democratic presidential nominee to join President Bush in demanding an “immediate cessation” of all advertisements by outside groups.
“We have not and will not question Senator Kerry’s service in Vietnam,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters aboard Air Force One. “The president is calling for an immediate cessation to all the unregulated soft money activity.”
He added: “We hope the Kerry campaign will join us.”
The TV ad features 13 Vietnam veterans who say Mr. Kerry, a Navy lieutenant who earned three Purple Hearts and was awarded a Silver Star and a Bronze Star in four months of action, lied to obtain his medals.
The ad was produced by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, one of many third-party political organizations that have sprung up to skirt new campaign-finance restrictions.
The Kerry campaign and the Democratic National Committee called the ad’s message “an outrageous, inflammatory lie,” and have sent a letter to TV stations asking them not to run it.
Campaign spokesman Chad Clanton brushed aside Mr. Bush’s challenge to end third-party “soft money” ads, and said the president must answer for the new ad.
“We’re glad to have a discussion about campaign finance reform. But it’s disingenuous for the Bush campaign to hide behind this partisan group that’s trying to tear down John Kerry’s distinguished military service record,” Kerry spokesman Chad Clanton said. “It’s a reminder of why this White House has lost credibility.”
The ad comes a week after Mr. Kerry spent much of his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention referencing his service in Vietnam, saying those months taught him about patriotism, values and religion.
The ad also comes as a Rasmussen poll shows military veterans supporting Mr. Bush over Mr. Kerry by a margin of 58 percent to 35 percent, despite the Massachusetts Democrat’s numerous combat medals.
Swift Boat Veterans for Truth says the 13 veterans who speak were close enough to witness the events that led Mr. Kerry to receive the medals.
“John Kerry has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam,” veteran George Elliott says in the 60-second ad, which is scheduled to air in Ohio, Wisconsin and West Virginia.
“I know John Kerry is lying about his first Purple Heart because I treated him for that injury,” adds veteran Louis Letson.
“John Kerry lied to get his Bronze Star,” says veteran Van O’Dell. “I know, I was there, I saw what happened.”
The Kerry campaign is calling Swift Boat Veterans for Truth “a sham organization” and the men who speak on the ad “phony.”
In the joint letter to television stations, the campaign and the DNC dispute that any of the speakers served “with” Mr. Kerry.
They also challenge Mr. Letson’s claim to have treated Mr. Kerry for the injury that earned him his first Purple Heart, noting that he “is not listed on any document as having treated Senator Kerry after the December 2, 1968, firefight.”
The veterans in the ad served either alongside him while commanding other boats or higher up in the chain of command.
But those who served under Mr. Kerry on his own boat defended Mr. Kerry against the other veterans’ charges.
“These assertions are garbage,” said Gene Thorson, who was part of Mr. Kerry’s crew on PCF 94, one of two boats Mr. Kerry commanded during his time patrolling the Mekong Delta.
“These people weren’t there with John Kerry. If he hadn’t made the right command decisions, in my opinion, we would be some of the names on that wall,” Mr. Thorson said.
The ad was produced by Stevens, Reed, Curcio and Potham, the same firm that produced the presidential campaign ads of Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, in 2000.
“I wish they hadn’t done it,” Mr. McCain said of his former advisers during an interview with the Associated Press. “I don’t know if they knew all the facts.”
Mr. McCain was one of the lead sponsors of the campaign finance reform bill that Mr. Bush signed in March 2002. But the law has been undermined by the emergence of “527 groups” — officially nonpartisan under the Internal Revenue Service regulations that govern them — that have helped Democrats outspend the Bush campaign.
“The president has been on the receiving end of more than $62 million in negative attack ads from shadowy groups,” Mr. McClellan said. “The president thought he got rid of this kind of activity when he signed the bipartisan campaign finance reforms into law.”
Hundreds of Navy veterans have signed up to be part of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which announced its formation at a Washington press conference in May.
Members said they were not a pro-Bush group, but are simply opposed to Mr. Kerry, believing him unfit to be commander in chief. The group’s chairman, retired Rear Adm. Roy Hoffman, said Mr. Kerry tried to head off the group’s formation.
Mr. Kerry’s camp says the group is the creation of wealthy Bush supporters and media operatives.
Meanwhile, Rasmussen Reports released a poll suggesting Mr. Kerry’s emphasis on his Vietnam record has failed to win the support of most veterans.
“The potential grass-roots impact of the war issue is highlighted by the fact that 48 percent of Americans say they know someone who is currently serving in Iraq or Afghanistan,” the polling firm said in a release. “Among these voters, Bush currently has a ten-point advantage in the poll.”
Rasmussen added: “When it comes to perceptions of the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is likely that information from family and friends has a bigger impact than news coverage.”
Americans with no military service support Mr. Kerry by 51 percent to 41 percent, according to the poll of 1,000 likely voters, including 216 military members. The survey was conducted Tuesday and Wednesday and has a margin of error of three percentage points.
The poll was released as the Bush and Kerry campaigns traded barbs over military spending.
The Bush campaign pointed out that the president signed a $416 billion military appropriations bill yesterday and reminded reporters that Mr. Kerry voted against an earlier bill for $87 billion, which included body armor for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt pointed to a New Yorker article that cited Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, and an unnamed Kerry adviser saying that Mr. Kerry voted against the $87 billion because he thought his primary campaign was threatened by anti-war candidate Howard Dean.
“The fact that Kerry would vote against our troops for political benefit raises serious questions about his credibility and his ability to lead our nation in the war on terror,” Mr. Schmidt said.
The Democratic National Committee countered by issuing a statement that said U.S. service members, under Mr. Bush “are being stretched too thin, and being given insufficient supplies and equipment.”
Mr. Bush made no reference to the military squabbling during campaign stops in Ohio and Michigan yesterday.