Sen. John F. Kerry said today he was "telling the God's honest truth" about his Vietnam combat record, as his presidential campaign agreed to stop showing a television ad featuring Republican Sen. John McCain attacking President Bush.
Kerry's ad, which called on Bush to denounce a veterans group's "smear" of the Democrat's military record, showed McCain telling Bush during the 2000 presidential race that he should be "ashamed" of questioning McCain's record on veterans issues.
McCain, who was a U.S. prisoner of war in Vietnam, has campaigned for Bush's reelection despite persistent tensions stemming from their rival candidacies for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000.
"We respect John McCain's wishes and will stop running the ads of him challenging Bush to denounce the attacks on [Kerry's] service," Kerry spokesman David Wade said, referring to a veterans group's television advertising and anti-Kerry book.
"It's long past time that George Bush also take John McCain's advice and do the right thing by putting an end to the smears and lies attacking John Kerry's military service. George Bush needs to say this is wrong."
The Democratic presidential nominee ran the ad with McCain this week in roughly seven battleground states, Wade said.
At a campaign forum in this Minneapolis suburb, a man in the crowd asked Kerry about accusations by the veterans group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, that he lied about his role in Vietnam War battles in order to get Navy medals.
"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 responded.
Speaking a day after the Bush campaign's national counsel resigned because of his role advising the Swift Boat group, Kerry said the public was beginning to see "the lie that's been put out there and how it's been put out there."
"The United States Navy, 35 years ago, when it was fresh, did its own documentation," he said. "Those documents stand. And I am absolutely telling you the God's honest truth about what happened and what took place over there. As are the other people who laid it out correctly over the last days."
The Bush campaign has denied coordinating activities with the veterans group, which could run afoul of federal campaign law. But the president has declined Kerry's request to denounce specifically the group's attack on his record fighting the Viet Cong as a U.S. Swift Boat lieutenant in the Mekong Delta.
While McCain, too, has called on Bush to denounce specifically the group's accusations against the Democrat, the president has made only general remarks praising Kerry's military record.
As Kerry opened the campaign forum here in the hometown of radio personality Garrison Keillor, the senator from Massachusetts challenged Bush to debate him every week until the election on Nov. 2. Kerry suggested debates on healthcare, education, national security, the environment and other topics.
"America deserves a serious discussion about its future," Kerry said. "It does not deserve a campaign of smear and fear."
The presidential debates commission has scheduled three debates between Bush and Kerry and one between their running mates, Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. But the two campaigns have not reached agreement on when, where or how often the candidates would debate.
Bush spokesman Steve Schmidt said there would be "time for debates" after the Republican National Convention next week in New York City. And he responded to Kerry's challenge by renewing Bush's accusations that Kerry has a propensity for waffling. Over the next few weeks, Kerry "should take the time to finish the debates with himself," Schmidt said.
"This election presents a clear choice to the American people between a president who is moving America forward and a senator who has taken every side of almost every issue and has the most out of the mainstream record in the U.S. Senate," Schmidt said.
At Kerry's town hall-style forum, his theme was healthcare. On the walls behind the crowd were banners saying: "Affordable Healthcare for a Stronger America" and "A Real Plan for Affordable Healthcare."
Kerry seized on a U.S. census report released today that found the number of Americans with no health insurance grew by 1.4 million last year to 45 million. (It also found the number with health insurance grew — by nearly 1 million to 243.3 million.)
"We now have about 45 million Americans who go to bed every night, worried, wake up in the morning, don't know what choices they're going to make," Kerry said. "In fact, we scheduled this meeting here today on a Thursday so it wouldn't interfere with your weekend trip to Canada to buy prescription drugs, folks."
Speaking to roughly 200 invited guests in an auditorium at Anoka Technical College, Kerry faulted Bush and Republicans in Congress for blocking Democratic proposals to let Americans buy lower-cost prescription drugs abroad.
Framing the healthcare debate as one of "values," Kerry asked: "Can you explain that in terms that are rational? What's the value of making it harder for seniors to get less expensive drugs in America?
"The value," he said, "was to make sure that the powerful, great big friends and the big drug companies get taken care of."
Kerry also criticized the Republican president and his allies in Congress for passing Medicare reforms that bar the government from making bulk purchases of prescription drugs to cut patient costs.
"They actually wrote in a prohibition," Kerry said. "Against the law. Medicare can't go out and negotiate the lower drug price so that big drug companies get a $139 billion windfall profit. That's a value choice, my friends. And when John Edwards and I are in there, so help me, we're going to let people use the marketplace."