WASHINGTON – John Kerry (search) on Tuesday condemned a television ad that criticizes President Bush's Vietnam-era service in the Texas Air National Guard (search), even as prominent veterans linked to the Democratic presidential campaign echoed the commercial's accusations.
Bush's campaign accused Kerry of hypocrisy.
In a campaign shadowed by the war on terror, the military records of Kerry and Bush emerged again as an issue after Republican Sen. John McCain (search) called on Kerry to denounce an ad that accuses Bush of using family connections to avoid the Vietnam War.
McCain, a decorated Vietnam veteran with the reputation of a political maverick, had called on Bush two weeks ago to condemn an ad in which several veterans accused the Kerry of fabricating his war record.
The White House has declined to denounce that ad. Kerry, mindful of McCain's political clout, issued a conciliatory statement minutes after the Arizona senator told The Associated Press he wanted Kerry to condemn the anti-Bush ad.
"I agree with Senator McCain that the ad is inappropriate," Kerry said in a statement released by his campaign. "This should be a campaign of issues, not insults."
Hours earlier, at a news conference organized by Kerry's campaign, two veterans accused Bush of using family ties to get out of combat.
Kerry served and fought, said retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, who ran for the Democratic nomination against the senator but now is in his camp. "The other man scrambled and used his family's influence to get out of hearing a shot fired in anger," Clark said.
Retired Adm. Stansfield Turner, who was CIA director in the Carter administration, said Bush "used his father's influence to get into the Air National Guard and avoid going to war."
At the same news conference, Jim Rassmann, who credits Kerry with saving his life while under fire in Vietnam, noted that Kerry has said Bush served honorably. However, Kerry also said in February of Bush's Guard service, which included time in Alabama: "The issue here, as I have heard it raised, is was he present and active on duty in Alabama at the times he was supposed to be? I don't have the answer to that question."
The Kerry campaign did not criticize Clark and Turner.
"Those are veterans who earned the right to their opinion," said spokeswoman Debra DeShong. "John Kerry speaks for John Kerry."
Bush spokesman Steve Schmidt said Kerry can't have it both ways. "It's yet one more example of John Kerry saying one thing and doing another. John Kerry condemns the ad, then John Kerry turns the campaign's top surrogate loose to repeat the baseless charges that are in the ad."
Kerry volunteered for service in Vietnam, earning a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. Bush served stateside in the Texas Air National Guard and was honorably discharged.
A new ad by MoveOn.org, a liberal interest group, urges Bush to condemn the anti-Kerry ad and contends the president "used his father to get into the National Guard and when the chips were down went missing."
McCain told The AP the ad is "totally inappropriate" and a disservice to members of the National Guard who are "fighting and dying in Iraq."
"This is the bitterest, most unsavory campaign in the nation's history," McCain said. "And it's only going to get worse."
Asked whether he wanted Kerry to condemn the MoveOn.org ad, McCain replied, "Yes. It's the same line of scurrilous attack" leveled against Kerry two weeks ago."
"I wish we would stop opening wounds from a war of more than 30 years ago and talk about the war we're fighting now," McCain told The AP. "I believe they both served honorably."
McCain said both negative ads were funded by groups that benefit from unlimited, unregulated "soft money" donations, which he has tried to ban.
Kerry's campaign says the ad attacking their man was funded by people tied to Bush or his allies.
With security a top issue for voters, Kerry has heavily promoted his war record while Bush reminds voters of his performance after the Sept. 11 attacks. Neither wants to cede ground on the question of who would best protect the nation.
Kerry aides say their polls show no impact from the questions about his Vietnam service, though local Democratic politicians are passing along anecdotal warnings that the charges could be raising doubts among voters.