President Bush's re-election campaign told Democrat John Kerry (search) that it does not condone any effort to impugn his patriotism, but insisted his voting record on national security and defense is fair game in the presidential race.
Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign chairman Marc Racicot (search) on Sunday denied Kerry's accusation that the president is using surrogates to attack the Massachusetts senator's military service in Vietnam and his subsequent opposition to the war.
"In fact, that simply wasn't the case," Marc Racicot wrote in a letter to Kerry. "Our campaign is not questioning your patriotism or military service, but your votes and statements on the issues now facing our country."
The Kerry and Bush campaigns traded charges and countercharges in a flurry of statements and letters over the weekend.
The dispute began when the Bush campaign arranged a conference call with Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss (search) as Kerry prepared to campaign in the state Saturday. Chambliss predicted Kerry would have trouble in Georgia's Democratic primary next week because of a "32-year history of voting to cut defense programs and cut defense systems."
Kerry, landing in Atlanta later that night, held a press conference in which he declared, "No one is going to question my commitment to the defense of our nation."
He also said, "I don't know what it is about what these Republicans who didn't serve in any war have against those of us who are Democrats who did."
He sent a letter to Bush late Saturday, accusing the president of reopening the wounds of Vietnam for his personal political gain.
"If you want to debate the Vietnam era, and the impact of our experiences on our approaches to presidential leadership, I am prepared to do so," he said.
Kerry was the commander of a Navy swift boat in Vietnam and won the Purple Heart and Silver Star for his service. Bush served in the National Guard as a fighter pilot and received an honorable discharge, but has faced questions in recent weeks about whether he always reported for duty.
Racicot responded Sunday to Kerry's letter, asking him to "elevate the remarkably negative tone of your campaign and your party over the past year."
"Senator Chambliss addressed your Senate record of voting against the weapons systems that are winning the war on terror," said Racicot, former governor of Montana.
Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill then responded to Racicot's response, criticizing the Bush campaign for rejecting the debate proposal.
"Let's hope President Bush will stop hiding behind his attack dogs, his $100 million campaign war chest and his campaign chairman and debate," she said in a statement.
The exchange allowed Kerry to engage the president's re-election team before he's won the Democratic nomination. Kerry is well positioned to become the nominee after winning 15 of 17 primaries and caucuses, but rival John Edwards is doggedly challenging him in the 10 Super Tuesday contests on March 2.
Whoever becomes the nominee also could face a challenge from Ralph Nader, who announced Sunday that he would run as an independent in protest of the two-party system. Many Democrats blame Nader for taking votes from Al Gore in 2000 and effectively putting Bush in the White House. But Kerry said he doesn't fear a Nader candidacy.
"If people want to beat George Bush badly, and they understand what's at stake here, they'll see that I am speaking to concerns that Ralph Nader and other people have," he said in an interview with Atlanta television station WAGA.
Edwards, a North Carolina senator 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.
"Can we get a few more people in this room?" Edwards joked, gazing across a jammed ballroom in Cleveland. "All you have to do is look across this room to know with absolute certainty that the people of America want this campaign to go on."