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KERRY AND VETERANS

Bush's service record criticized

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Presidential candidate John F. Kerry yesterday took aim at Republicans for questioning Democrats' patriotism, and several fellow military veterans blasted President Bush as a failed commander in chief who once dodged military service and suffers from never having learned the lessons of war.

Speaking to about 250 veterans and South Carolina voters at a town-hall-style forum, four days before the state's primary, former US senator Max Cleland of Georgia introduced Kerry as a combat leader with the caring touch of Shakespeare's Henry V, while accusing Bush of shirking his military duty during the Vietnam era.

"We need somebody who has felt the sting of battle, not someone who didn't even complete his tour stateside in the Guard," said Cleland, who lost three limbs in Vietnam, in a reference to allegations that Bush, who stopped flying with the Texas Air National Guard in 1972, did not fulfill the last two years of his military obligation.

Kerry did not comment on Cleland's remarks, which echoed filmmaker Michael Moore's recent denunciation of Bush as a "deserter" and caused some embarrassment for candidate Wesley K. Clark, whom Moore is backing. Instead the Massachusetts senator offered his own retort to nationalGOP leaders who have recently criticized him as weak on national security because he has sometimes opposed higher defense spending, among other military proposals.

"I have a message for those who try to challenge the Democrats and say to them, `You're unpatriotic' or you're somehow stepping out of line if you question the United States or the policies of your country," Kerry told the audience. "I tell 'em, there's not a veteran here who doesn't know that what we fought for. And what we wished for -- even while we were serving -- was the right to question and that someone would question policies when they're wrong. When it's wrong, make it right."

With seven states voting for a Democratic nominee Tuesday, the forum in Columbia and an evening rally at a Delaware union hall reflected Kerry's effort to reassemble the coalition of veterans, workers, and students who helped him surge to a surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses and a win in the New Hampshire primary. Kerry has thus become the front-runner for the party's nomination.

During the mid-morning forum on the campus of the University of South Carolina, seven-term US Senator Ernest "Fritz" Hollings sought to whip up the crowd.

"We're in trouble. I've seen it all, and I thought we were in trouble one time there, when they were in the streets and everything else in the '60s, but we're in worse trouble -- because they're not in the streets," said Hollings, a World War II veteran. "They're not in the streets."

A new Zogby opinion poll yesterday showed Kerry taking a 34-point lead in Arizona and a 21-point lead in Missouri, among those states with primaries Tuesday. A new University of Connecticut poll showed Kerry running 25 points ahead of Senator Joseph I. Lieberman in Lieberman's home state of Connecticut, which holds its primary on March 2.

Kerry also picked up endorsements yesterday from a key labor union, the Communication Workers of America, which has more than 700,000 members nationwide, and the Michigan Education Association, that state's largest teachers union.

Two members of the Congressional Black Caucus -- Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania and Kendrick Meek of Florida -- also announced they were backing Kerry.

Kerry appears to be in a tight race to win South Carolina with Senator John Edwards, who on Thursday said that a Democratic ticket headed by Kerry would be a risk because Northern candidates have had so much trouble carrying Southern states. Yesterday, Kerry reached out to South Carolina voters during a televised forum featuring the Democratic contenders one by one. At one point, Kerry hugged a woman who told a sad story about her immigrant family's struggle in America.

Kerry also made a bid, as Howard Dean tried to do last year and as President Clinton did at points in his presidency, to start a discussion about race relations in America. He said that black and white Southerners deserved "an extraordinary amount of congratulations from all Americans" for working to achieve integration.

"We've learned how to play sports together, we've learned how to go to school together, [but] we still have to do some work at living together," Kerry said.

But it was the president's policy in Iraq that provided some of the sharpest comments of the day. Hollings cast his frustration in personal terms, recalling that his units in World War II learned to avoid launching attacks if they were certain to be killed while doing so.

Speaking of US troops killed in Iraq, he said: "How can I go to the funeral and tell 'em what they died for? I'm their senator. You don't think that's on my conscience?" Patrick Healy can be reached at phealy@globe.com.

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