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Kerry defends Democrats' wartime service

Strong responses contrast with '04

NEWTOWN, Pa. -- The military record of a Democratic House candidate was under attack. So, Senator John F. Kerry ventured to the Philadelphia suburbs last week to defend Patrick Murphy -- and deliver the kind of speech the senator never quite gave when his own wartime service was called into question in 2004.

"Attacking Patrick Murphy for his service is a little bit like Jessica Simpson attacking Albert Einstein's IQ," the Massachusetts Democrat proclaimed Thursday at a chilly outdoor rally at Bucks County Community College.

"A lot of these people in the GOP, the Republican Party -- they think somehow that they served because they played with GI dolls when they were little," Kerry said. "The guys who really served understand what it means, and we've had enough of these lies."

Many Democrats remain angry with Kerry over his failure to more aggressively combat Republican smears in 2004. Efforts to tar Kerry generated a new term for political hatchet-jobs -- "swift-boating" -- and Kerry's slow response to the attacks ranks alongside his muddled position on the war in Iraq on Democrats' list of complaints about the campaign.

Now, Kerry is making it a personal mission to defend veterans running as Democrats in this year's congressional elections from Republican attacks. Should he run for president again in 2008, his efforts on behalf of veterans could leave him with a corps of fiercely loyal supporters in Congress, and could help erase memories of the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" attacks that he acknowledges he let stand for too long.

Yet the obstacles to another Kerry run are visible as he travels the country. His appearance in Newtown brought a handful of sign-toting protesters calling Kerry a traitor to Vietnam veterans, something Kerry is used to by now. It also brought, in larger numbers, Democrats whose skepticism about another Kerry run stems from lingering questions about his last campaign.

"My reaction was to go down to Texas and punch those Swift boat guys in the mouth," said Albert Lawler, 58, who runs a tutoring business in Bucks County. "He's too much of a politician for that."

Kerry insists that his work on behalf of congressional candidates -- including 15 veterans who are running for House and Senate seats -- has nothing to do with his presidential ambitions. After the 2004 campaign, he said, he vowed to use his political celebrity and campaign infrastructure to help Democrats win control of Congress.

Last week, he sent another $500,000 to the Democrats' House and Senate campaign arms, on top of the more than $11 million he had already raised or given to candidates for Congress.

But with Kerry poised to make a decision on seeking the presidency in the weeks after the Nov. 7 congressional elections, the 2008 overtones of his efforts are unmistakable.

"A lot of people feel that I'm better than I was back when I was running," Kerry said in an interview. "People feel a greater level of focus and energy, and that's good to hear."

His stump speech is notably more liberal this time around. It has evolved into a concise recitation of longstanding Democratic priorities: energy independence, universal healthcare for children, even an assertion that President Bush was "selected" over Al Gore in 2000.

After a campaign in which he struggled to articulate his differences with the president on Iraq, he has become a full-throated war critic, calling for the United States to set a deadline of July 2007 to remove nearly all combat troops from the country.

"The war in Iraq is not making America safer. It's making America more exposed," Kerry said in Newtown. "What you have in Washington today is a house of lies, and we need to sweep that house clean."

Earlier this year, Republican pollster Frank Luntz conducted focus groups in New Hampshire and Iowa where he showed clips of the latest campaign-style appearances of nine Democrats who are thinking about running for president. Kerry came across as the best of the bunch, except for lingering resentment that he had not displayed the same fire two years ago, Luntz said.

"John Kerry's a new guy, a new man, a new candidate," he said. "He's got an agenda, he's got passion. He's an articulate critic of the administration. Their only complaint is, 'Why didn't he say these things two years ago?' The response is, 'Wow, that's not the John Kerry I remember.' It's a challenge for him to show that he should have a second chance."

Kerry now talks regularly of mistakes he made in the presidential campaign. He was never clear enough in communicating his message on Iraq, he says. He mocks Republican flip-floppers for supporting issues before they were against them, in self-defacing homage to his infamous statement that he voted for a war-funding bill before voting against it.

He said he realizes now that he should have used television advertisements to push back at the Swift boat group, whose claims of Kerry's war-service exaggerations were rebutted by most of those who served alongside him.

"Until they get bitten for doing it, they'll try to do it, and that's why we have to fight back so hard," Kerry said in the interview. "I just am tired of these guys. They're a bunch of frauds. They're bullies."

Candidates, of course, are thrilled to get help from a high-profile Democrat such as Kerry. He endorsed Jim Webb in the Virginia Senate primary long before Senator George Allen seemed vulnerable.

Murphy beamed at Kerry's side in Newtown, calling him "one of America's great leaders."

Murphy saw combat in Iraq as an Army captain. Kerry came to his defense after two Iraq war veterans accused Murphy of exaggerating his combat role, saying he spent more time at headquarters than on the front, a charge the candidate strongly disputes.

After that Newtown event, Kerry stopped by another Philadelphia suburb to appear on behalf of Joseph A. Sestak, the Democrat candidate who is taking on Republican Representative Curt Weldon.

There, Kerry got the kind of advice that he gets all the time these days.

"If you do run for president -- and I do hope you do -- fight like hell," one person at the fund-raiser told him.

"I'm in a fighting mood," Kerry responded. "We -- together -- lost to two lies: the lie about the war in Iraq, and the lie about me personally. And if you don't think that puts me in a fighting mood, you don't know John Kerry."

Rick Klein can be reached at rklein@globe.com.

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