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Kerry calls foe 'unfit,' rips VP on deferments

SPRINGFIELD, Ohio -- John F. Kerry planned to call President Bush ''unfit to lead this nation" because of the Iraq war and lost jobs at home at a late-night rally yesterday in this battleground state.

In his sharpest language of the presidential race thus far, the Democrat also directly assailed the student deferments received by Dick Cheney in the 1960s, as he responded to attacks this week by the vice president and others on his antiwar activities after returning from Vietnam and on his Senate votes opposing some military weapons programs.

''For the past week, they attacked my patriotism and my fitness to serve as commander in chief," Kerry said in remarks that were released to reporters two hours before Bush was to speak last night at the Republican National Convention in New York -- an effort to steal some of the spotlight from Bush's nomination for reelection. ''Well, here's my answer: I'm not going to have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they could have and by those who have misled the nation into Iraq."

''The vice president even called me unfit for office last night. I guess I'll leave it up to the voters whether five deferments makes someone more qualified to defend this nation than two tours of combat duty," Kerry planned to say.

''Let me tell you what I think makes someone unfit for duty," he continued. ''Misleading our nation into war in Iraq makes you unfit to lead this nation. Doing nothing while this nation loses millions of jobs makes you unfit to lead this nation. Letting 45 million Americans go without health care makes you unfit to lead this nation. Letting the Saudi royal family control our energy costs makes you unfit."

Setting up an event in this battleground state with thousands of cheering supporters of Kerry and running mate John Edwards was one of several postconvention tactics the Kerry campaign disclosed yesterday. It was hoped the stategy would pay off with today's morning news shows including coverage of the rally on a day when the networks would otherwise be airing only excerpts of the Bush speech. The Democratic nominee's senior advisers confirmed yesterday that some ''comparative" ads against Bush would be included in their new $50 million buy -- reflecting a sharper tone that some leading Democrats have sought from Kerry recently. Democrats will also kick off an aggressive campaign of surrogate speakers such as Bill Clinton.

A month of attacks on Kerry's Vietnam-era activities have led some voters to question his trustworthiness. Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry's campaign manager, said yesterday that the Massachusetts senator may apologize in the near future for his 1971 statement that some US soldiers were commiting ''atrocities" in Southeast Asia.

Kerry acknowledged earlier this year during an appearance on NBC's ''Meet the Press" that the use of atrocities was ''an inappropriate word." He has been reluctant to raise the issue again, advisers say, for fear of appearing on the defensive over Vietnam, something the campaign has touted for his war heroism, and not his invective about atrocities after he returned from combat in 1969.

''I think [his antiwar protest] is another mark of valor, and I think it is something he will address and something we already planned for," Cahill said.

In speeches and through campaign commercials, Kerry intends to speak less about his biography -- which dominated his ads and the Democratic National Convention in Boston this summer -- and instead speak directly to voters about his agenda and Bush's ostensible failure at creating jobs, lowering health insurance costs, and making the nation more respected in the world.

Today, the Kerry campaign plans to announce it will broadcast six, city-specific attack ads that will run in television markets Bush is visiting through the weekend. The commercials will accuse Bush of ''stubbornly pursuing policies that have failed for the last four years," a Kerry adviser said, and charge that the president has broken promises to people in those six areas: Scranton, Pa.; Milwaukee; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Cleveland; Erie, Pa.; and Parkersburg, W.Va.

In addition, the campaign already began running different ads this morning in Ohio, a state that has lost 230,000 jobs during the past four years. ''President Bush insists the economy is just fine. We know America can do better," Kerry says in narrating the spot.

Cahill said similar ads will run in other battleground states, including one in Nevada in which Kerry will accuse the president of flip-flopping on a 2000 campaign promise about basing a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain. Bush said he would do so only if it was justified scientifically; Nevada Democrats say he broke that pledge when he approved planning for the waste site when scientists were still debating its safety.

Tad Devine, a top Kerry strategist, said the campaign would also consider airing more personally harsh ads depending on the tenor of Bush's own ads.

Some leading Democrats in swing states, while optimistic that Kerry's focus on lost jobs and health care is a winning one, have grown concerned recently that the candidate is not taking the fight directly to Bush with pointed criticism in his speeches and blistering television ads.

''Kerry needs the kind of tough ads that Bush ran against him last spring, and with the tough words you're hearing about Kerry at the RNC: hammering the president for having a nonsensical foreign policy, no health care plan, no jobs plan," said Scott Maddox, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party. ''I don't think you turn voters off by talking about their differences on Iraq, the economy, jobs."

A more aggressive campaign style should also include raising questions about Bush's own record in the Texas Air National Guard, say some Democrats, who remain concerned that the campaign has not entirely overcome the August commercials by an anti-Kerry group, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, that assailed his military record.

''It's just amazing that someone who has served in Vietnam has been put on the defensive by the campaign of a candidate who, during that period, was guarding Texas against a Mexican invasion by some Pancho Villa types," said Dennis White, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party.

Both Cahill, who was the subject of staff shake-up rumors in recent days, and Joe Lockhart, the former Clinton press secretary brought in to help the campaign with its message delivery, dismissed any speculation that the campaign was reeling, especially over the veterans group's attacks.

Mark Mellman, a top Democratic campaign pollster, said polls indicating that a majority of voters feel the country is on the wrong track presents Bush with a serious challenge.

Mellman also argued that the Republicans will be hampered in the long run because by catering to their conservative base over such issues as tax cuts and gay marriage, they are isolating the party from more moderate swing voters.

Doug Sosnik, another former Clinton political adviser hired in recent days to help the Kerry campaign, yesterday highlighted extensive get-out-the-vote efforts being planned by not only veterans of Al Gore's campaign -- Michael Whouley and John Geisser -- but also a key adviser in former Vermont governor Howard Dean's campaign this year, Karen Hicks.

They are targeting 21 states and have already identified 35,000 people who will serve as precinct captains to organize local voters. Also, 411,000 volunteers have signed up on Kerry's website, and 25,000 of them have indicated they will travel to battleground states sometime in October to organize on behalf of the Democrats.

''We've been saying the same thing about this race from the beginning: This was always going to be a close race. This is a 50-50 country," Cahill said.

In addition, Clinton attended two fund-raisers this week on behalf of the Democratic National Committee, and he will crisscross the country in the final weeks of the campaign on behalf of Kerry. All of Kerry's former rivals, including Dean, will be deployed on his behalf, as well.

Healy reported from Nantucket and Springfield with Kerry; Johnson reported from New York. Patrick Healy can be reached at Glen Johnson can be reached at

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