WASHINGTON – A pair of new presidential campaign ads released Friday fueled the debate over John Kerry's (search) military service in Vietnam as well as his later role as anti-war activist.
One new ad features a testimonial from Jim Rassmann (search), the man who says John Kerry saved his life in Vietnam. Kerry captained a Swift Boat in Vietnam and did a four-month tour during which he saw combat and won a Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts.
The other ad by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (search), which has already released an anti-Kerry ad as well as a book, is now slamming him for his anti-war comments when he returned from his tour of duty.
The group's previous ad, which claimed Kerry exaggerated his valor and lied to obtain medals, prompted the Kerry campaign to file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission that alleged the group behind the ad was illegally coordinating its efforts with the Bush-Cheney campaign. It cited "recent press reports" and the group's own statements. The Bush campaign denied the allegation.
Campaigns often file complaints with the FEC, but the agency rarely intervenes quickly enough to alter the course of a race.
On Friday, the New York Times published an article saying that wealthy Republican donors and GOP operatives are behind the group. The Times reported that some of the money for the anti-Kerry ads came from individuals who have worked on Bush's campaign and in previous Republican administrations.
"A series of interviews and a review of documents show a web of connections to the Bush family, high-profile Texas political figures and President Bush's chief political aide, Karl Rove (search)," the Times article said.
In the new Kerry ad, a narrator says, "The people attacking John Kerry's war record are funded by Bush's big money supporters. Listen to someone who was there, the man whose life John Kerry saved."
Rassmann, who served in the Special Forces, then says: "It blew me off the boat. All these Viet Cong were shooting at me. I expected I'd be shot. When he pulled me out of the river, he risked his live to save mine."
Kerry aides said the commercial would air in Ohio, West Virginia and Wisconsin -- three battleground states where the original anti-Kerry ad ran. The decision to advertise even in a limited fashion marked a change in course for the campaign, which had hoped to remain off the air in August to conserve cash for the fall campaign.
Kerry accused Bush on Thursday of relying on front groups to challenge his record of valor in Vietnam, asserting, "He wants them to do his dirty work."
Speaking to a firefighters convention, Kerry said if Bush wants to "have a debate about our service in Vietnam, here is my answer: 'Bring it on."'
Bush served stateside in the Texas Air National Guard during the war. The Bush campaign denied that it is involved with the ads.
"We have not been involved in this ad whatsoever. Senator Kerry appears to have lost his cool and now he launching a baseless attack against the president," White House Spokesman Scott McClellan said.
But the Bush White House has refused to condemn the ads, despite calls from Washington Democrats and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former Vietnam prisoner of war.
The Swift Boat group has now turned its fire on the controversial comments the Massachusetts senator made when he returned home.
The new 60-second spot features POWs who criticize Kerry's now famous testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in which he said war crimes were common and condoned by the highest levels of U.S. military command.
Kerry has said he's generally proud of his anti-war testimony but has backed away from the contention that war crimes were widespread and condoned as a matter of policy. He said his testimony was based on accounts given by other anti-war activists, some of whom served in Vietnam. Many of those accounts have since been discredited.
"John Kerry gave the enemy for free what I, and many of my comrades in North Vietnam, in the prison camps, took torture to avoid saying. It demoralized us," Vietnam POW Paul Gallanti says in the ad. "He dishonored his country and, more importantly, the people he served with. He just sold them out."
Gallanti is a retired Navy commander and was a prisoner for 6 years and 8 months.
The group has spent $600,000 to run the ad in New Mexico, Nevada and Pennsylvania, retired Navy Admiral Roy Hoffman told FOX on Friday.
The Kerry campaign said this fresh attack means the Swift Boat group has given up on trying to attack Kerry's heroism. But the group responded that they always intended to criticize Kerry's anti-war activism.
Some of the veterans who appear involved with the group had praised Kerry's service in the past.
When Kerry was running in a tough reelection race in 1996, Capt. George Elliott said medals were only handed out after careful scrutiny. He also praised Kerry's Vietnam service. "The fact that he chased an armed enemy down is something not to be looked down upon, but it was an act of courage."
Hoffman is also on the record praising Kerry. In a June 2003 Boston Globe profile of the candidate, Hoffmann praised Kerry's actions that resulted in a Silver Star. "It took guts, and I admire that."
Polling by the National Annenberg Election Survey found that half of Americans have heard about or seen an ad that claims Kerry lied to obtain his Vietnam War medals. People were about evenly split on the believability of the ads — generally along partisan lines.
Fox News' Major Garrett and the Associated Press contributed to this story.