Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry unveiled a major advertising effort Monday to counter Republican attacks on his record, offering himself as a son of privilege who volunteered to fight in Vietnam and has served his country ever since.
The two 60-second commercials give the Massachusetts senator a chance to do something no other Democrat seeking the White House has done so early in an election year: introduce himself to voters on a broad scale through saturation-level television advertising.
The Kerry campaign is spending $25 million to run the biographical ads through May 27 in 19 states and on national cable channels. Another $2.5 million will pay for extending the run of an ad on Kerry’s agenda that began last month.
The $27.5-million expenditure is by far his campaign’s largest and will consume a major chunk of the $80 million it had raised as of last week. Kerry is betting the ads will blunt President Bush’s portrayal of him in a barrage of TV ads as soft on defense, an avid tax-raiser and a waffler on major issues.
The new ads underscore what Democratic strategists view as one of Kerry’s strengths -- his military record, especially in contrast to Bush’s.
Kerry’s ads make no mention of Bush. But they offer an implicit contrast to him by mentioning their common alma mater, Yale University, and highlighting the path Kerry pursued after graduation into the jungles of Vietnam. Bush stayed in the United States and became a pilot in the Texas Air National Guard.
“I enlisted because I believed in service to country,” Kerry says in one of his ads. “I thought it was important if you had a lot of privileges as I had had, to go to a great university like Yale, to give something back to your country.”
Bush campaign officials belittled Kerry’s commercials. “These ads say nothing about his record as a United States senator and nothing about his vision for keeping Americans safe,” said Ken Mehlman, the president’s campaign manager.
Also Monday, Kerry spoke at a conference in Washington of the Anti-Defamation League, which monitors violence and prejudice against Jews. He stressed his support for Israel and pledged to work hard for a solution to the Middle East conflict if elected president.
He said of his Senate career: “I’m proud that my commitment to a secure Jewish state has been unwavering -- not even by one vote, or one letter or one resolution has it wavered.”
Democratic presidential candidates traditionally have received the vast bulk of Jewish votes, but some analysts believe Bush could make inroads among this bloc because of his strong support for Israel. Kerry’s speech was his latest bid to ease any doubts about his own policies toward the Jewish state.
The day’s major event for Kerry remained the one he did not attend: the screening of his new ads at campaign headquarters in Washington.
“Both of the ads begin with a detail that aides believe few voters know about the 60-year-old Kerry: He was born in an Army hospital in Colorado while his father was in the Army Air Corps during World War II. His home state of Massachusetts, which nationally has a reputation for producing liberal politicians and is one of the hotbeds of debate over gay marriages, is not mentioned.
The ads include testimonials to Kerry’s valor in Vietnam from two comrades who say he saved their lives.
In one of the ads, titled “Heart,” his daughter Vanessa vouches for Kerry’s “ability to fight for things that matter,” and his wife, Teresa, calls him “generous of spirit and of heart.”
The other ad, “Lifetime,” lists the medals he earned as skipper of a Navy swift boat in the Mekong Delta -- Silver Star, Bronze Star, three Purple Hearts -- and shows a picture of him later as an antiwar activist.
Kerry’s protest activities have been a target of some GOP criticism. And last week, questions arose about whether he had been candid in discussing an incident in the early 1970s in which he joined other veterans publicly casting aside military decorations to make a statement against the war.
The “Lifetime” ad also shows Kerry walking with Sen. John McCain and notes that he worked with the Arizona Republican to investigate whether U.S. troops remained as prisoners in Vietnam long after the war had ended there.
The ad also spotlights his legislative record. A narrator touts him as “a leader in the fight for healthcare for children.”
That is a reference to Kerry’s support of a 1997 law that grants federal aid to states for children’s health insurance. But observers on Capitol Hill said other Democrats -- such as Kerry’s home-state colleague, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy -- played far more prominent roles on the issue.
The narrator also says that Kerry “in the 1990s cast a decisive vote that created 20 million new jobs.” That was a reference to Kerry’s vote for President Bill Clinton’s budget in 1993, which increased federal spending and raised the federal gas tax and income tax rates for wealthy taxpayers, in an effort to balance the budget.
Vice President Al Gore broke a tie vote in the Senate to pass the bill. Kerry’s vote was therefore critical, as were the votes of all Democratic senators supporting the bill.
But whether that bill, in itself, created 20 million jobs during the course of Clinton’s presidency is debatable.
Democrats say the measure put the country on a path toward a budget surplus that helped lower the cost of capital and spurred private investment and job growth.
Republicans reply that tax increases never create jobs. They argue that the economy was recovering from a recession by the time Clinton took office and that the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994 helped set the country on a pro-growth track.
Times staff writer Matea Gold contributed to this report.