Bush Camp Denies Questioning Kerry's Patriotism

George W. Bush's presidential campaign told John Kerry (search) it "does not condone" any effort to impugn his patriotism but asserted that senator's voting record on national security and defense issues is a valid target of political scrutiny.

Responding Sunday to a letter in which Kerry accused President Bush of using surrogates to attack his military service in Vietnam (search) and his subsequent opposition to the war, Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign chairman Marc Racicot said, "I ask you to elevate the remarkably negative tone of your campaign and your party over the past year."

Kerry had taken umbrage at statements that Sen. Saxby Chambliss (search) made earlier, predicting trouble for the Massachusetts Democrat in Georgia's primary because of a "32-year history of voting to cut defense programs and cut defense systems."

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In the letter to Bush Saturday, Kerry wrote: "As you well know, Vietnam was a very difficult and painful period in our nation's history, and the struggle for our veterans continues. So, it has been hard to believe that you would choose to reopen these wounds for your personal political gain. But, that is what you have chosen to do."

"Saxby Chambliss, on the part of the president and his henchmen, decided today to question my commitment to the defense of our nation," Kerry said while campaigning in Georgia, one of 10 states choosing electoral delegates on March 2.

Kerry told a news conference he voted for the largest defense and intelligence budgets in American history, although sometimes he "voted for common sense to make changes."

In his reply letter Sunday, Racicot said, "Our campaign does not condone any effort to impugn your patriotism. Your letter claims that supporters of our campaign questioned your service and patriotism. In fact, that simply wasn't the case."

"Our campaign is not questioning your patriotism or military service, but your votes and statements on issues now facing our country," said Racicot, former governor of Montana. "Senator Chambliss addressed your Senate record of voting against the weapons systems that are winning the war on terror."

Countered Kerry spokesman David Wade: "The Republicans need to answer to the American people for their craven tactics that degrade our democracy and question the patriotism of those who stand up and ask questions about the direction of our country. ... John Kerry takes a back seat to no one when it comes to maintaining the strongest military on the face of the earth and keeping our promises to America's veterans."

Racicot's reply came as Kerry and Sen. John Edwards visited black churches in states conducting primaries in the March 2 Super Tuesday series of delegate-selection contests. Kerry has a commanding lead over Edwards, winning 15 out of the 17 states so far. Edwards, who has won only in South Carolina, has been striving to demonstrate to voters that he would have a better chance than Kerry against Bush this fall.

"You can feel the life and the heartbeat of this church," Edwards said at the 5,000-member First Church of God in Columbus, Ohio, appealing to a constituency that is crucial in the March 2 contests. "I'm speaking to people who understand that firsthand," said Edwards. After church, more than 1,000 jammed into an Ohio State University ballroom to cheer Edwards' message.

Kerry visited Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, and was welcomed warmly by King's widow, Coretta Scott King. Kerry didn't speak at the service, but when hundreds rushed to meet him during a meet-and-greet, Ebenezer's pastor asked parishioners to return to their seats to continue the service.

Edwards has said he would have special appeal in the South, but influential black leaders in Georgia lined up for Kerry. Three of Georgia's black Congress members -- Reps. Denise Majette, Sanford Bishop and John Lewis -- have endorsed Kerry and accompanied him to Ebenezer. Mrs. King has not yet committed to a candidate.

Kerry also held a town hall meeting while in Atlanta, blasting Bush for what he called the biggest transfer of wealth from the middle class to the wealthy in the country's history.

"I've never seen the system tilted, stacked against the average person as much as it is today," he said to an overflow crowd that spilled onto the sidewalk outside the Roxy Theatre.

Meanwhile, Democrats criticized Ralph Nader's announcement Sunday that he will again seek the presidency, this time as an independent.

"It's an act of total ego," said Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico.

Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said, "The fact is that if Ralph Nader runs, President Bush is going to be re-elected, and if Ralph Nader doesn't run, President Bush is going to be re-elected.