In a break from tradition, Democrats and their presidential candidate, John F. Kerry, are aggressively reaching out to veterans, a bloc of 22 million Americans that usually tilts Republican. The campaign turned up the volume yesterday afternoon at a rousing veterans caucus, the first ever at a Democratic National Convention.
In a packed ballroom at the Sheraton Boston Hotel, retired Army General Wesley K. Clark, former senator Max Cleland of Georgia, Kerry's Vietnam swift-boat crewmates, and strategist-turned-commentator James Carville energized the crowd of about 1,000.
Carville, a former Marine corporal, praised Kerry as "a tough dude, a tough guy . . . just a better man than George Bush."
The Massachusetts senator, he said, has survived the three most dire situations a man can face:
Under fire in Vietnam, "he passed that test," Carville said, getting nods of approval from Kerry crewmates assembled on stage.
Diagnosed with prostate cancer, "he got out of his bed and ran for president."
Late last year, when Kerry's candidacy was given up for dead, "he was so toast, he was buttered on both sides," Carville quipped. He then not only won the nomination, but wrapped up a contested Democratic race "faster than anyone in my lifetime," he said.
Jim Wasser of Kankakee, Ill., who served under Kerry on a swift boat in Vietnam, told the crowd: "John Kerry never made one bad command decision. . . . He's a proven commander."
Clark, the former NATO commander, Iraq war opponent, and one of Kerry's vanquished challengers in the fight for the presidential nomination, brought the crowd to its feet twice.
Kerry's combat experience, he said, had taught him that "in this country, we must use force only . . . only . . . only as a last resort." Later, pointing to the huge American flag backdrop behind the stage, Clark said veterans in the room had fought under the Stars and Stripes and seen comrades killed in battle or laid in the ground under the flag. "No John Ashcroft, or Tom DeLay, or Dick Cheney is going to take that flag away from us," Clark said.
The crowd roared when Cleland, who lost three limbs in Vietnam and is one of Kerry's most devoted allies, rolled on stage in his wheelchair and, referring to Kerry's crewmen on stage, extolled his former Senate colleague's leadership qualities, calling it "the bond between the leader and the led."
Through the darkest days of Kerry's campaign, veterans always turned out at events to support him, and now are a major component of his organization in every state. Campaign aides say at least 100,000 have signed on to support him and the goal is to reach 1 million.
Jim Cumming, a Houston schoolteacher who served in the air defense artillery in the mid-1970s, said Texas veterans "are coming out of the woodwork" to join Texas Democratic Veterans, an organization he chairs. Two years ago, the group started with 75 members and has grown to more than 1,000, he said.
But some of Kerry's "Band of Brothers" are disappointed that Kerry, a leader of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War in the early 1970s, has not taken a stronger position on the war in Iraq.
About 400 members of Veterans for Peace held their convention in Boston last week. Many have stayed on to raise awareness during the Democratic events. A few dozen of the antiwar veterans distributed leaflets or held signs outside the caucus at the Sheraton.
"We want him to show the same courage he showed when he came home from Vietnan and spoke out against the war," said Barry Riesch, 55, of St. Paul, who served as an Army mortarman in Vietnam in 1969-70. "I'll vote for him, but some of our members are on the fence."
Kerry's courting of veterans will be heavily contested by Republicans who have lined up prominent military figures, including some of his former Navy commanders, to criticize Kerry's Senate record and his years as a Vietnam War protester.
Christine Iverson, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, yesterday cited Kerry's voting record against funds to continue military operations in Iraq.
"As long as Democratic Party leaders like John Kerry vote against things like the $87 billion to fund our troops in the field in Iraq, they're going to continue to have problems with voters who care about defense and security issues," she said.