NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Democrats Wesley Clark (search) and John Edwards (search) — two candidates who have tended to take the campaign high road — exchanged bitter barbs Friday, with Clark arguing that his rival turned his back on veterans and Edwards calling the complaints "baseless, false attacks."
Clark set the series of charges and countercharges in motion, saying in a morning radio interview that "when it came to deciding between the special interests and our veterans, Senator Edwards blinked. He didn't support our veterans." He cited votes by the first-term North Carolina senator.
That touched off a flurry of strongly worded press releases between the two presidential campaigns, with the Edwards' team arguing that when politicians are losing, "they dip into the gutter." By day's end, Edwards told The Associated Press in an interview that Clark mischaracterized his votes.
"These charges are false," he said in the interview in which he argued that he has always supported veterans and his votes were the same as Republican Sens. John McCain (search) of Arizona and Chuck Hagel (search) of Nebraska, two Vietnam War veterans.
The North Carolina senator also issued a warning: "Tennesseans should brace themselves for more baseless, false attacks in the days to come."
The sharp exchange indicated just how much both Clark and Edwards have riding on Tennessee, which votes Tuesday and offers not only 69 pledged delegates but the promise of new life in the campaign. Both are trying to win the Southern battleground state to knock each other out of the race and emerge as the alternative to front-runner John Kerry (search).
Clark has sharpened his attacks against Edwards this week. The retired Army general said Edwards was the only Democratic senator who voted in 1999 "against closing corporate tax loopholes to prevent across-the-board cuts to veterans health care."
The same year, Edwards voted against adding $1.3 billion in funding for the Veterans Administration, Clark said. "And two years later, he did it again, voting against funding for veterans' medical care."
He couched his criticism in polite terms, saying: "I like John Edwards. He's a good man. But our differences are important. I'm a veteran and that means taking care of our veterans all the time — not just when it's politically convenient."
Edwards has tried to stay above the fray, but Clark's latest comments drew an angry retort from him.
"They're wrong about what they are saying," Edwards told reporters while campaigning in Bristol, Tenn. Asked whether he remembered casting the votes Clark criticized, Edwards offered a testy response, "No, of course not. Do you remember every single vote?"
He said the veterans programs may have been included in larger appropriation bills that he voted against for a variety of reasons, including one that he says would have been detrimental to farms in North Carolina.
His campaign argued that the first-term senator has supported veterans and voted to increase spending on veterans' programs, and added that the lawmaker's wife, Elizabeth, is the daughter of a decorated Korean War veteran. It issued a statement saying, "This is what politicians do when they are losing — they dip into the gutter and throw whatever they find, whether it is true or not."
Clark communications director Matt Bennett responded: "With his vote against protecting veterans benefits and now with his campaign's flailing response, John Edwards has proven yet again that he is the product of Washington — a place where you can make bad decisions one day and run away from them later."
In the radio interview, Clark coupled his criticism with pledges to increase funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs, "to make sure no veteran is waiting three months for a doctor's appointment, and to end the so-called disabled veterans tax which discriminates against veterans with disabilities."
Under law, an estimated 500,000 disabled military retirees lose a dollar in retirement pay for each dollar they receive in disability compensation. After prodding from Democrats as well as veterans groups, the Republican-controlled Congress last year approved a 10-year, $22 billion plan to extend full retirement benefits to some of those veterans.