Conn. AG, Senate candidate Blumenthal calls report on Vietnam-era military service distorted

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Democratic Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal disputed a newspaper report that he falsely led people to believe he had served in Vietnam, a brewing crisis that gave hope to Republicans pursuing control of the Senate.

Blumenthal, the state's attorney general for the past 20 years and the front-runner to succeed the retiring Sen. Chris Dodd, was planning a Tuesday afternoon news conference at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in West Hartford to respond to the New York Times story.

The story included quotes and a video of Blumenthal saying at a 2008 event that he had "served in Vietnam." It also cited several instances of media reports — apparently uncorrected by Blumenthal — that described him as a Vietnam veteran.

He also has spoken repeatedly of suffering the mistreatment veterans received after returning from Vietnam. At a veterans event in Shelton, he said, "When we returned from Vietnam, I remember the taunts, the verbal and even physical abuse we encountered," according to a 2008 Connecticut Post story.

The misstatements persisted for years even though Blumenthal is known to pore over press clips and call reporters to clarify or correct points.

Blumenthal served six months in the Marines training at Parris Island, S.C., and six years in the Marine Reserve, none of it overseas. He joined a unit in Washington that conducted exercises and focused on local projects, such as organizing a Toys for Tots drive, the Times reported. Before that, Blumenthal got five deferments to avoid going to war between 1965 and 1970.

He told the Times he had misspoken at the 2008 event in Norwalk in which he said he served in Vietnam and said he has always tried to make it clear his Marine Reserve service never took him overseas. In a televised March debate, Blumenthal stated clearly he had not actually served in Vietnam during the conflict when asked a question about using military force in Iran.

His campaign called the newspaper's report an "outrageous distortion" of his record.

Times spokeswoman Diane McNulty told The Associated Press that the paper stands by its story.

One of Blumenthal's Republican opponents, former wrestling executive Linda McMahon, took credit for giving video of the Norwalk event to the Times after more than two months of "deep, persistent" research.

"This is what comes of $16 million, a crack opposition research operation and an opponent who, in the words of the president Blumenthal worked for on a draft deferment, who gave them the sword," her campaign said.

The wording was later removed from the website.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said it was not surprised McMahon's campaign "cherry-picked" the quotes "considering all of the debauchery at the WWF under her watch."

The Senate campaign of Republican former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, a Vietnam veteran, said in statement Tuesday that the "stunning revelation" about Blumenthal raised questions about the viability of his candidacy and may make "this the race that could deliver a Republican Senate majority." Simmons' campaign said he served 19 months in Vietnam with the Army, earned two Bronze Stars and "has never needed to pad his resume."

Questions about Blumenthal's military service come just days before Connecticut Democrats meet at their party convention on Friday night to endorse a candidate. Blumenthal is facing a challenge for the nomination from Mystic businessman Merrick Alpert, but is expected to easily win the party's endorsement.

In Washington, neither Republican nor Democratic leaders viewed the report as a so-called "game changer."

Public polling in recent days shows Blumenthal leading his GOP challengers in hypothetical head-to-head matchups by 30 to 40 percentage points. Democrats didn't expect Blumenthal to abandon his bid and, at this point, weren't urging him to do so.

Nonetheless, Democrats and Republicans in Washington watched the developments in Connecticut closely, mindful that Connecticut could be the tipping point in the GOP's quest to regain power in the Senate.

The GOP needs to gain 10 seats to take control. In an election-year environment that's tough for Democrats, Republicans hope to hang onto all the seats they control while picking up 10 Democratic-held seats.

Given the stakes, Democrats moved to stunt the damage quickly.

Blumenthal planned to surround himself with veterans at his news conference, while Democrats in Washington circulated videos showing the candidate being up front about his Vietnam service even as they geared up to go after McMahon.

Republicans, in turn, suggested that Blumenthal had a credibility issue at a time when voters were craving politicians who talked straight, even as they acknowledged that McMahon's apparent role in the report could hurt her.

Members of both parties suggested that Republican Rob Simmons — enmeshed in a primary with McMahon — could ultimately benefit from the tussle; he actually served in Vietnam.

Blumenthal, at times, has been careful with the portrayal of his service.

In January, shortly after he entered the U.S. Senate race, Blumenthal appeared on WFSB-TV and was asked about his service "in the Marines" and whether he supported the troop surge in Afghanistan. Blumenthal said he did support the president's plans for additional troops and made it a point to say, "I served in the United States Marine Corps Reserve, and proudly." He went on to talk about how his son's commissioning ceremony at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va., was "one of the proudest moments of my life."

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Associated Press writer Liz Sidoti in Washington contributed to this report.