NEW YORK – Democratic front-runner John Kerry (search) said Monday that he considers Republican criticism of his voting record on defense and national security an attack on his patriotism because "that's the game they play."
The four-term Massachusetts senator and decorated Vietnam War (search) veteran argued that Bush's re-election campaign is trying to portray him as weak on defense by citing specific votes. But Kerry, who argued that he has voted for the largest defense and intelligence budgets in U.S. history, said he will not allow questions to be raised about his commitment to defense by Republicans "who never fought in a war."
"They're somehow stronger on defense because they embrace every [weapons] system that was ever proposed," Kerry said. "That's not the measure of whether you're strong on defense."
The Bush-Cheney campaign (search) says it is not questioning Kerry's patriotism or military service but rather his 19-year voting record in the Senate on military issues.
"Every time we have brought to light his voting record, he has responded by saying we have attacked his patriotism," said Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot (search) in a conference call with reporters. "We have praised repeatedly his patriotism."
Asked for examples of Bush attacking his service in Vietnam, Kerry cited published reports that the campaign plans to question his outspoken opposition to the war after he returned.
"That reflects on the service," Kerry said. "That is a reflection on me and what I chose to do."
Kerry won numerous medals for bravery and injury during the Vietnam War and has challenged Bush to a debate on their experiences during the era and the impact on their presidential vision. Bush served in the National Guard during the war and received an honorable discharge, but he's faced questions about whether he always showed up for duty.
Kerry was introduced at a rally in Harlem Monday by Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., a fellow veteran who said Bush "parades around like he is a war veteran."
"When someone parades around campaigning like he is a war president, it's time for the Democratic Party to get a warrior," Rangel said.
Kerry and his supporters are eager to engage the president in a debate that would highlight his experience in the war and has accused Bush of attacking his service.
In an interview with local television station WNBC-TV, Kerry said he would run no negative advertising and limit spending if Bush agreed to do so, too. "I'm prepared, if they will agree to do that. I would certainly agree to run not one negative advertisement if they'd agree to run no negative advertising," Kerry said. "But I doubt very much that they'll do that."
Kerry is focused on defeating his last remaining major rival, fellow Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, in the 10 states that hold nominating contests on March 2, known as Super Tuesday. Hawaii, Utah and Idaho vote on Tuesday, but Kerry and Edwards have not campaigned in the states and focused on the more delegate-rich contests next week.
Kerry will spend more than $1 million to run television ads in three March 2 states -- Georgia, Ohio and New York -- beginning Tuesday, outspending challenger John Edwards 5-to-1 this week.
Bush is stepping up his campaign in preparation for a match against Kerry. Racicot said although there are mathematical possibilities of someone else winning the Democratic nomination, Kerry appears to be headed toward the nomination.
In another sign that Democratic leaders are unifying behind Kerry, two prominent Democratic governors -- Pennsylvania's Ed Rendell and Bill Richardson of New Mexico -- said Monday they expect Kerry will wrap up the nomination in the first or second week of March.
"I think Senator Edwards knows that he's a positive influence and a credible candidate. I think he's a team player," said Richardson, who has not endorsed a candidate, adding that Edwards' challenge to Kerry has helped, not hurt, the party.
Rendell said he won't endorse until after the race is settled. Will it be Kerry? "Yes. I assume. But, you know, in this campaign you never can say never," he said.