Kerry Counterpunches on Who’s Fit to Serve

Times Staff Writers

After suffering bruising attacks on his national security credentials, Sen. John F. Kerry slammed back at his Republican critics late Thursday night by accusing them of ducking their own military service and misleading the country into war with Iraq.

In a biting and personal rebuttal to criticisms leveled at him during the Republican convention, the Democratic presidential nominee singled out Vice President Dick Cheney for seeking five deferments during the Vietnam War.

“For the past week, they have attacked my patriotism and even my fitness to serve as commander in chief,” Kerry told thousands of supporters at a moonlit rally in this southwestern Ohio town. “Well, here’s my answer to them. I will not have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they could have and who have misled America into Iraq.


“The vice president called me unfit for office last night,” he added, referring to Cheney’s convention speech. “Well, I’m going to leave it up to the voters to decide whether five deferments makes someone more qualified than two tours of duty.”

Kerry was referring to the multiple deferments -- because of college and fatherhood -- that Cheney received during the Vietnam era.

He also took aim at President Bush’s handling of the Iraq war -- an issue that has proved troublesome for Kerry because he voted to give the president authority to go to war.

“This president misled America into this war,” Kerry said, adding that Bush had said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. “Two hundred billion [dollars] later, and tragically, tragically, too many lives later, Iraq is a mess and the world is not at the side of the United States of America.”

Kerry’s denunciation of his opponents came as advisors said the campaign would spend the fall focused on domestic issues and the economy, an area they view as the Bush administration’s Achilles’ heel. The overarching theme: that Bush has prioritized wealthy supporters at the expense of working-class Americans.

But aides said the Massachusetts senator’s Vietnam counterattack underscored his intention to be aggressive in the last two months of the 2004 campaign.

On Thursday night, Kerry told the crowd, “I have five words for America: This is your wake-up call.” He went on to combine the themes, accusing Bush and Cheney of being “unfit for duty” and sitting by idly while Americans lost their jobs and health insurance.

Kerry’s campaign plans to buttress his domestic message with a $50-million television ad campaign that spotlights, among other topics, the country’s slow economic recovery.

The effort will tailor ads to 20 specific states; the first new commercial, which begins airing in Ohio today, notes that 230,000 jobs were lost there in the last four years.

“President Bush insists the economy is just fine,” Kerry says in the ad, as the screen flashes images of factory workers and children running past hay bales. “We know America can do better.”

Kerry’s new emphasis comes after he made his service in Vietnam the centerpiece of the Democratic convention in July, a strategy that many party activists say left him vulnerable when a veterans group unleashed a series of searing television attacks on his wartime service.

The fallout has triggered a dip in the polls and a wave of dissension within the party about the Massachusetts senator’s campaign.

“Bush has successfully, at least in part, been able to attack what should be an unassailable record of public service,” said Democratic strategist David Doak.

During a breakfast meeting with reporters in New York on Thursday, Kerry’s campaign team waved off talk of internal changes, They acknowledged that the allegations that Kerry exaggerated wartime injuries and skirmishes -- countered by key witnesses and available military records -- had thrown the candidate off stride.

“There’s no question in the last month we’ve been talking about things we don’t want to be talking about,” said pollster Mark Mellman.

But Kerry’s advisors insisted that they were well positioned as the race headed into Labor Day, saying that both national polls and those in battleground states show the president has been weakened by the war and economic difficulties.

Aides said that although Kerry still would stress his military experience and his criticism of Bush’s handling of Iraq, as he did Thursday night, he would spend the bulk of his time talking about pocketbook issues.

“We’ve already passed the national security bar and laid out specific plans about how we’re going to keep the nation safer, but what George Bush can’t talk about is the economy,” said communications director Stephanie Cutter.

The candidate began laying out his new theme at a rally in Nashville on Tuesday night.

“Isn’t it strange that the only thing they want to talk about is the war on terror?” he asked throngs of cheering supporters.

“You can’t be strong in the rest of the world, folks, unless we’re strong here at home. You can’t be strong at home unless people are working, people have healthcare, people go to school.”

But the Republicans have shown no signs that they’ll go along with the Democrats’ attempt to change the subject. This week’s GOP convention was dominated by accolades for Bush’s leadership of the war on terrorism and denunciations of Kerry’s defense credentials.

Political experts said that, in many ways, Kerry has no choice but to turn to the domestic front.

“He still has to argue that he has a record that shows he can protect this country,” said independent analyst Stuart Rothenberg. “But for a while, it’s been nothing but that. They have to get back to their strengths. If the election is about the war and terrorism and Bush’s leadership, John Kerry is going to lose.”

To make their case, the campaign is shifting to the localized ad combat. Although the Ohio ad focuses on job losses, commercials in Florida -- a state that has suffered fewer job losses -- may speak about falling wages, advisors said.

“We’re going to talk to people about issues that matter to them in places where they live,” said senior Kerry advisor Tad Devine.

New ads are to begin airing next week in Florida, Iowa, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Wisconsin, with more to follow in 13 other states. The campaign also will continue to run commercials nationally, such as a 30-second spot it unveiled Thursday.

In the ad, which is running on cable, Kerry declares: “The fundamental choice in this election is between a president who will fight for the middle class and a president who sides with the special interests in this country. I’ll be a president who stands up for the middle class.”

The Bush campaign bought air time this week, but its officials declined to talk about upcoming ads. The two campaigns and partisan and independent groups have spent more than $270 million on TV ads.

Kerry’s list of 20 target states omits Virginia, where he spent more than $1 million this year to test whether the state’s 13 electoral votes could be put into play. But his campaign plans to air commercials in 11 states that Bush captured in 2000: Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia.

Gold reported from Springfield, Anderson from New York.