- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 2, 2004

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — John Kerry was politely received by the American Legion yesterday, delivering a speech focused on veteran pocketbook issues and President Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq without addressing the attacks leveled against him last month by fellow veterans.

“I’m proud to be here, and I’m proud to be a Legionnaire,” he said after saluting the several thousand veterans seated in the giant hall.

“When I am president, you will have a fellow veteran in the White House who understands that those who fought for our country abroad should never have to fight for what they were promised back here at home,” Mr. Kerry said.

The audience politely responded to most of Mr. Kerry’s pauses for his applause lines and gave him a standing ovation.

It was the candidate’s first appearance before a major national veterans group since sailors who served near Mr. Kerry in Vietnam launched a series of TV ads severely critical of his conduct protesting the war and questioning whether he deserved his medals.

In addition, Mr. Kerry’s campaign added more-experienced Democratic operatives on Tuesday, including President Clinton’s White House press secretary Joe Lockhart amid Democrat charges that the old team was too slow to respond to the ads by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which have hurt Mr. Kerry’s standing in polls.

Vietnam veteran Manny Mirailh from South Canaan, Pa., was among a handful of veterans who walked out as Mr. Kerry began speaking.

“We, we, we, we,” he said, rolling his eyes. “When did he join the Legion? He must have a mouse in his pocket.”

Although Mr. Kerry was clearly critical of Mr. Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq, his speech emphasized his understanding of basic issues affecting veterans.

“In recent weeks, you have heard from some who have claimed that the job is getting done for veterans,” he said. “Well, just saying the job is getting done doesn’t make it so.”

He leveled several charges at Mr. Bush over the president’s handling of Iraq.

“President Bush now admits he miscalculated in Iraq,” Mr. Kerry said. “In truth, his miscalculation was ignoring advice that was given to him, including the best advice of America’s own military.”

In a conference room off the main convention hall, several anti-Kerry veterans distributed fliers, buttons and CD-ROMs filled with information about Mr. Kerry, including a full-page advertisement that ran in Nashville’s Tennessean newspaper this week.

“The wounds inflicted by John Kerry on millions of veterans go to the heart and soul,” veteran Dexter Lehtinen said in the ad about Mr. Kerry’s testimony before Congress 33 years ago accusing U.S. soldiers of committing atrocities. “These wounds never go away.”

The speech came one day after Mr. Bush addressed the same conference and received several standing ovations.

In his speech, Mr. Bush vowed, “We will win” the war on terror — clarifying an earlier statement when he said, “I don’t think you can win it.”

The Kerry campaign attacked the president, comparing Mr. Bush’s dueling statements to Mr. Kerry’s conflicting votes — first in favor, then against — additional funding for the war in Iraq.

A press release issued by the campaign said Mr. Bush was “against winning the war on terror before he was for it,” a paraphrase of Mr. Kerry’s regretted boast that he’d voted for the war funding before he voted against it.

Mr. Kerry called Mr. Bush’s initial statement a “moment of candor” yesterday and vowed to fight a more effective war against terrorism.

Mr. Kerry’s speech — unusual because he delivered it during the opposing party’s nominating convention — came at a time of deep consternation among Democrats over recent stumbles plaguing the Kerry campaign.

Polls have shifted in Mr. Bush’s favor since the attacks by Swift Boat veterans and Republican domination of the airwaves this week.

Top campaign officials insist that no “major shake-up” is in the offing, even as they turn to new Democratic heavyweights to help combat Republican attacks. Mr. Lockhart, known for an aggressive, combative style while serving Mr. Clinton, flew here with Mr. Kerry on Tuesday night for the Legion speech.

One area of concern for some Democrats is the communications team that Mr. Lockhart will be joining.

Before Mr. Kerry’s speech to the American Legion, his campaign issued a memo informing reporters that, among other things, Tennessee’s unemployment rate is 4.5 percent, which is lower than the national average, and that Mr. Bush carried the state by four percentage points in the 2000 election against Vice President Al Gore, who is from Tennessee.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said the new staff additions are just a normal campaign “final-phase” action.

“We know we’ve got a long way to go to Election Day,” he said. “Other people will be added to the campaign, but there will be no major shake-ups.”

A common complaint among Democrats is that the Kerry campaign was slow to respond to the attacks from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and that his national political “message” is generally vague. Photos of Mr. Kerry windsurfing off his Nantucket Island vacation home this week didn’t help matters much.

Mr. McAuliffe told reporters yesterday that Friday will be the first day of a full-time campaign until Nov. 2.

“For those ensuing 60 days, we will not stop,” he said. “John Kerry will not stop one single day.”

The campaign wasted no time yesterday trotting out two veterans to demand that Bush political adviser Karl Rove resign his position after telling the Associated Press that Mr. Kerry’s claims of atrocities by American servicemen tarnished “the records and service of people who were defending our country and fighting communism.”

“If the question is whether or not there is any independence left between the campaign and these Swift Boat ads, that question has now been answered,” said former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey. “Karl Rove has been in enough political campaigns to understand how separate you need to be from these independent efforts and he just ended that separation.”

The campaign later sent out a press release noting the lack of military service by Mr. Rove and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, who joined Mr. Kerrey in demanding Mr. Rove’s resignation on behalf of the campaign, said the veterans attacking Mr. Kerry’s war record have contributed to a spike in suicides, which, he says, has occurred among veterans.

Before introducing Mr. Kerry, American Legion national commander John Brieden noted that Mr. Kerry had been “castigated” in the press for breaking the tradition of not campaigning during the opposing party’s national convention.

“Let me set the record straight,” Mr. Brieden said. “He is upholding the tradition that all major candidates for president appear before the American Legion.”

This year’s American Legion conference was planned six years ago.

When Mr. Kerry stepped to the podium, he said he was proud to be addressing “the major convention” occurring this week.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report from New York.

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