NEW YORK – The group responsible for turning John Kerry's Vietnam War service into a major campaign issue released a new ad Friday, accusing the Democratic presidential nominee of being "deceitful" for suggesting he spent Christmas Eve, 1968, in Cambodia.
The new spot from Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (search) is just the latest twist in a story that has dominated campaign news coverage almost since Kerry accepted the nomination last month.
Also getting into the act Friday was John Glenn (search) — the former Ohio senator, one-time presidential candidate and the first American to orbit the earth — who condemned the anti-Kerry commercials.
Glenn, a decorated Marine, said the ads attack all those who defended the United States in wars and discussed the need to get back to the real issues at stake.
'Never in Cambodia'
Called "Never in Cambodia," the ad features Stephen Gardner, who served under Kerry.
"I spent more time on John Kerry's boat than any other crew member," Gardner says in the ad. "John Kerry hasn't been honest, he's been deceitful. John Kerry claims that he spent Christmas in 1968 in Cambodia and that is categorically a lie. Not in December, not in January. We were never in Cambodia on a secret mission, ever."
A recently released book, "Unfit for Command," co-authored by Swift Boat Veterans spokesman John O'Neill (search), raises questions about Kerry's claims that he was in Cambodia on Christmas Eve, 1968, at a time when the U.S. government insisted that there was no American military presence in that country.
In an Oct. 14, 1979, letter to the editor of the Boston Herald, Kerry wrote: "I remember spending Christmas Eve of 1968 five miles across the Cambodian border being shot at by our South Vietnamese allies who were drunk and celebrating Christmas. The absurdity of almost being killed by our own allies in a country in which President Nixon claimed there were no American troops was very real."
Kerry also mentioned the incident in a speech on the Senate floor on March 27, 1986.
"It's a total and complete lie. It's a total fabrication," O'Neill recently told FOX News. "He's said it 50 times and yet in his new book, he's in a base in Vietnam dreaming of sugar plums."
Kerry has said on the record that he was mistaken in his recollections and has since said he was on a river near Cambodia, not actually in the country.
Growing Flap Over Kerry's Service
The Cambodia issue is just one of many Vietnam-related tangles the Massachusetts senator has found himself in as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth continues its campaign.
The group also challenges the validity of Kerry's various medals and slams the Boston Brahmin for claiming — once he returned from service — that many Americans who served in Vietnam had committed atrocities.
Kerry has accused the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign of using the group as a front to run a "fear and smear" campaign.
"All the guys who were with me on my boat, all the guys who were with me in the specific action where they could see it and do it, absolutely document what I said," Kerry said during a campaign stop Thursday. "And as you've seen in the last few days, you're now learning about the lie that's been put out there and how it's been put out there
The Kerry-Edwards camp this week launched its own 60-second television ad entitled, "Shame," a reworking of an Internet ad, entitled "Old Tricks," that the campaign released on Saturday.
Both ads feature Arizona Sen. John McCain rebuking then-candidate Bush for refusing to disavow or condemn attacks on McCain's military record during the South Carolina Republican primary.
The Kerry campaign on Thursday agreed to pull ads featuring McCain at the Republican lawmaker's request. McCain has been lobbying in support of Bush but has criticized the swift boat ads.
In an interview with The New York Times that was published Friday, Bush said he didn't believe his opponent had lied about his service in Vietnam.
"I think Senator Kerry should be proud of his record," Bush said. "No, I don't think he lied."
Further stoking the fires of the controversy, Rear Adm. (Ret.) William Schachte Jr. told columnist Robert Novak for Friday's papers that he was "astonished" to hear Kerry's version of the events of Dec. 2, 1968, when Schachte was in command of Kerry aboard a skimmer boat on the Mekong River.
Schachte said that Kerry wasn't wounded by hostile fire, wasn't even under fire by the enemy and that he "nicked" himself with a grenade launcher and "requested a Purple Heart" afterward.
On the flip side, a swift boat crewman decorated in the 1969 Vietnam incident where Kerry won a Bronze Star says that not only did both men come under enemy fire, but also that his own boat commander, who has challenged the official account, was too distracted to notice the gunfire.
A 'Bitter Fight' to Move Beyond
Political observers on both sides of the aisle agree that the messy issue has distracted the campaign from more important issues — yet it still continues to make front-page news.
"We're now in a bitter fight. ... Kerry was undeniably a war hero ... and we ought to move beyond it," former Amb. Richard Holbrooke, a Kerry campaign adviser, told FOX News on Friday.
Holbrooke added that more focus should be placed, for example, on the U.S. troops dying in Iraq and the situation in Najaf.
"In the fog of war, people have different memories of what happened," he said. "These people are arguing about trivia."
GOP strategist Ed Rogers said the controversy was taking its toll on the Kerry campaign.
"He has made his service in Vietnam the — one of the pillars of his candidacy, and now he is in a dispute with people that have a different view and as he said, has earned the right to speak as veterans have, have earned the right to speak out," Rogers told FOX News on Friday. "I think there is going to be a more corrosive element for Kerry, and you're going to see the poll numbers change a lot."
A FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll released Thursday shows that in a survey of a small number of veterans, Bush tops Kerry by 51 percent to 42 percent.
According to the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey (search) released Thursday, veterans say they trust Bush more than Kerry as commander in chief, 56 percent to 38 percent. But many veterans surveyed dismissed the catfight surrounding Kerry's Vietnam service, saying it wasn't likely to change their votes.
In a Los Angeles Times survey, Bush led Kerry in the presidential race for the first time, drawing 49 percent among registered voters, compared with 46 percent for the Democrat.
Although a solid majority of Americans say they believe Kerry served honorably in Vietnam, the poll showed that the swift boat vets' attacks and Kerry's antiwar protests at home had left some marks: Kerry suffered small but consistent erosion compared with July on questions relating to his Vietnam experience, his honesty and his fitness to serve as commander-in-chief.
In that poll, 18 percent said they "believe that Kerry misrepresented his war record and does not deserve his war medals," while 58 percent said Kerry "fought honorably and does deserve" the medals.
Democratic consultant Steve Jarding said those numbers actually may mean Kerry is currying more favor among this voting demographic.
"About 25 percent of our military consider themselves Democrat. Kerry is getting 42 percent of those," Jarding told FOX News. "In your same [FOX News] poll, the majority of the individuals [who] had an opinion said that they thought the ads against Kerry were not good and they did not agree with them."
"So I look at this, if I'm John Kerry, and say they have made inroads," Jarding added. "These numbers suggest to me, at least where they stand today, that perhaps he's done that."