Democrat John Kerry (search) defended his Vietnam War (search) record Tuesday night from accusations that he didn't deserve his medals and invited voters to judge his 1970s anti-war activism as an indication of the "kind of president I'm going to be."
Kerry, speaking at a fund-raiser that the campaign said raised $1.7 million for the Democratic Party, said criticism of his decorated service in Vietnam has "become so petty it's almost pathetic in a way."
Kerry has been reaching out to fellow soldiers for help battling the fallout from a group of veterans who accuse him of lying about his record. Robert "Friar Tuck" Brant, a member of the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (search), said Kerry called him Sunday night and asked if he was aware of the group's activities.
"I said, 'I am one, John,'" said Brant, who had appeared at a news conference announcing the group in May. "There was a moment of hesitation and he said, `I appreciate your honesty.' He said, 'Well, why are you?'"
Brant said he told Kerry he was most upset about Kerry's protests after returning from the war, when he accused soldiers of committing atrocities. "I said, 'You know that's not true,'" Brant said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "That's been simmering in me about 35 years."
Brant said Kerry said he didn't mean everyone in the war was involved in the atrocities. The Massachusetts senator also offered to meet to discuss their differences, Brant said. He said he declined, saying, "I know what I know."
At the fund-raiser, Kerry defended his anti-war activism as "an act of conscience."
"You can judge my character, incidentally, by that," Kerry said. "Because when the time for moral crisis existed in this country, I wasn't taking care of myself, I was taking care of public policy. I was taking care of things that made a difference to the life of this nation. You may not have agreed with me, but I stood up and was counted and that's the kind of president I'm going to be."
Brant, who like Kerry was skipper of a Navy swift boat patrolling the Mekong Delta (search) in 1968-1969 and now lives in Virginia, said he did not witness any of the incidents that led to Kerry winning medals. Others in the swift boat group have appeared in a television ad questioning whether Kerry lied to get them.
Kerry said he earned his three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star under the process set up by the Navy "and I'm proud of them and I'm proud of my service and I'm proud that I stood up against the war when I came home because it was the right thing to do."
Kerry also struck back at people who criticize him for trying to glorify only four months of service in Vietnam.
"I was there longer than that, number one," he said. "Number two, I served two tours. Number three, they thought enough of my service to make me aide to an admiral."
Kerry served six months aboard the USS Gridley, which supported aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin, before a four-month tour in the Mekong Delta that repeatedly brought him close to gunfire. After Kerry got three Purple Hearts for injuries from enemy fire, he was reassigned out of the combat zone and got his requested assignment to be a personal aide to an admiral in New York.
Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, introducing Kerry at the fund-raiser, said by watching the group's ads, "you'd think this was a 1962 or a 1976 presidential election."
"If you want this election to be decided on the Vietnam War, then I ask you one question: Who served this country better during the Vietnam War, John Kerry or George Bush?" Rendell said.
Bush served stateside in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War, and did not see combat. Democrats have questioned whether he always showed up for duty.
During a speech earlier Tuesday at Cooper Union in New York (search), Kerry sought to turn the campaign debate to issues on which he thinks he can win -- and away from questions about his Vietnam service. He also tried to paint Bush as the candidate who has been dishonest.
"My duty, as I understand it, is to be a president and commander in chief who finds the truth and tells the truth instead of misleading the American people," Kerry said to 850 invited supporters in the city where Republicans will nominate Bush for re-election next week. "My duty is to be a president who tells the truth instead of hiding behind front groups, saying anything and doing anything to avoid the real issues that matter like jobs, health care and the war in Iraq."
Kerry spoke a day after Bush criticized attack ads run by outside groups -- known as 527s because of an IRS code provision -- including the commercials being aired by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Kerry has said the veterans group is a front for the president's re-election campaign. The Bush campaign denies any coordination.
Kerry's campaign will go on the air in Nevada, New Mexico and Pennsylvania on Wednesday with a commercial responding to a new ad there by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
"The Bush campaign and its allies have turned to the tactics of fear and smear because they can't talk about jobs, health care, energy independence and rebuilding our alliances," Kerry said.
Bush spokesman Steve Schmidt said Kerry's attempt to declare himself a victim of negative ads is "stunning hypocrisy." He said, "His campaign has hid behind and benefited from $63 million in attack ads by shadowy 527 groups."