RACINE, W.Va.—Sen. John Kerry's campaign has a new, unofficial strategy: To get even, get mad.
Across Ohio and into West Virginia over the Labor Day weekend, Kerry supporters took to the campaign stage with mocking, caustic, scornful rhetoric directed at President Bush's military service and Vice President Dick Cheney's lack of service. Kerry stood by smiling, hands clasped, as the invective flew.
Vietnam, George Bush and Dick Cheney were dodging the draft in the United States," Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, declared Monday at a Labor Day picnic here.
In Akron, Ohio, Mayor Donald Plusquellic described Bush as "hiding in the woods in Alabama" while Kerry "was defending our country."
And in Steubenville, Ohio, Rep. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio) introduced Kerry as "a man who was carrying guns through the jungles of Vietnam while George Bush was neglecting his military service and carrying out his responsibilities as a cheerleader at Yale University."
The harsh words came as Democrats have expressed increasing nervousness about the Kerry campaign's agility in responding to attacks on the nominee's military service. With a new set of political operatives from the Clinton White House, however, Kerry and his operation are expected to move faster and more forcefully to repel the attacks.
On Monday during a campaign visit to Poplar Bluff, Mo., Bush took Kerry to task for shifting positions on Iraq. And the Kerry campaign responded to the anticipated attack before Bush had uttered the words.
Also on Monday, Kerry unveiled another slogan to crystallize his message: "W stands for wrong. Wrong choices. Wrong direction," he said in Cleveland.
Mudslinging and the politics of personal destruction are not unusual in competitive political campaigns. It's also not unusual to inoculate a candidate by leaving the tough talk to others.
At last week's Republican National Convention in New York, for example, some delegates wore bandages with Purple Hearts inked on top to belittle Kerry's wartime wounds. He was awarded three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star as a naval lieutenant in Vietnam.
Before the convention, a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth launched an advertising campaign questioning whether Kerry deserved his medals and criticizing him for his anti-war protests.
Many of the group's assertions about Kerry have since been discredited, but a new group, Texans for Truth, has sprung up to question Bush's participation in his National Guard unit while in Alabama during the war.
In a television advertisement to begin airing Friday, Bob Mintz, a lieutenant colonel in the Alabama Air National Guard during the time Bush was supposed to have been there in 1972, will say he never saw Bush at the base even though he looked for him, according to a spokeswoman for the group.
Kerry officials said Monday that they have nothing to do with the group or its ads.
As the attacks on Bush gathered force over the weekend, aides to Kerry said their surrogates were speaking from the heart, not from a script, despite the similarities in content and tone.
"Those comments were totally unscripted," insisted David Wade, a Kerry spokesman. "Many thought it was the height of hypocrisy for people who hadn't served to disparage someone who had."
One senior campaign official described some of the weekend's speakers as "a little hot" but added, "this was not a planned effort."
Akron's Plusquellic, for example, said in an interview that no one from the campaign told him what to say and he did not read from prepared remarks. Though he said his primary concern is the nation's loss of jobs, Plusquellic, the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, called Bush "a draft dodger."
"It's clear John Kerry was over there serving," said Plusquellic, who described himself as infuriated that Vietnam is an issue in the campaign. "And George Bush did everything he could in his father's power to get out of going over there.