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Kerry castigates Bush on veterans

Candidate says budget cuts hurt active military, too

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Returning to a strategy that helped resurrect his primary campaign, John F. Kerry is once again surrounding himself with veterans, as he challenges President Bush on national security grounds and pledges better treatment for active-duty and retired members of the military should he win the White House.

The presumptive Democratic nominee, on the eve of the Memorial Day weekend, yesterday stood before the train from which Dwight D. Eisenhower commanded allied troops in World War II, and castigated the Bush administration for what he called a rush into war in Iraq, the mistreatment of military commanders, and the consideration of a $910 million cut in next year's Veterans Administration budget.

"My friends, I'm not going to listen to Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld and these other people talk about patriotism in America, when the first definition of patriotism is keeping faith with the people who wore the uniform of our country," Kerry told a crowd of current and former members of the armed forces during a sometimes tear-filled town hall meeting at the National Railroad Museum. In the crowd were two of Kerry's former Vietnam crewmates.

He also turned his fire on Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who in testimony to Congress last month could not say how many US troops had been killed in Iraq. Wolfowitz estimated 500, of which 350 were combat deaths; at the time, the Pentagon was reporting 724 deaths, of which 522 occurred in combat.

"It was just stunning, because you'd think that every day they'd be conscious of exactly what the cost is," Kerry said in response to a woman whose brother was killed in Vietnam and who contended that people were discounting the relatively small number of lives lost in Iraq. "That's a metaphor for the attitude about what's going on here," Kerry said.

Like Bush, Kerry promised to bring the troops home "as soon as possible," but the senator said he thought he could achieve it more easily than the president, because he could more effectively enlist allied nations to send troops to replace US soldiers.

There are 26.5 million veterans in the country, a bloc that regularly turns out at election time. The Kerry campaign hopes they will underpin the senator's electoral strategy.

His appearance yesterday -- against a backdrop of a banner saying, "Strength and Service" -- occurred on the second of an 11-day campaign stretch focused on national security. During that span, Kerry also intends to unveil "Veterans for Kerry," a formal campaign drive. In addition, the campaign is actively recruiting the support of Republican veterans who backed Bush or his chief rival in the 2000 primary campaign, Senator John S. McCain of Arizona. The campaign is planning to launch a "Republican Veterans for Kerry" organization in the coming weeks.

Yesterday, one such Republican -- John Nussbaum of De Pere, OK -- announced he was switching his allegiance to Kerry in the general election. Nussbaum, who, like Kerry, received a Silver Star while in Vietnam, described himself as a third-generation Republican.

"I voted three times for a man named Bush in previous presidential elections," said Nussbaum. With his voice choking with emotion, he added: "Today I can no longer support the current leadership. My vote is for the man who has demonstrated courage and integrity and who I believe will best lead our country in this time of war, Senator John Kerry."

John Hurley, the Massachusetts lawyer who is spearheading Kerry's veterans outreach, said afterwards: "The number of Republican veterans who come to us and say they voted for George W. Bush in 2000 is huge; it's not just one or two. . . . Veterans were a huge part of our success in Iowa and New Hampshire, and we believe they can be as well this fall."

Kerry was introduced yesterday by Jim Rassmann, the retired California policeman who was reunited with the senator two days before the Iowa caucuses and whose story of being rescued by Kerry in Vietnam was credited with a last-minute boost at the polls. He, too, previously voted Republican, but does not plan to do so this fall, he said.

In his remarks, Kerry accused the administration of starving the Veterans Administration of $1.8 billion, on top of the proposed cut next year, which was reported this week by The Washington Post after it obtained a secret Office of Management and Budget memo."Over a trillion of the last tax cut is going out to the wealthiest Americans, and we're starving the VA for $1.8 billion," he said.

The Bush-Cheney committee challenged that assertion and highlighted a recent report by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. The center recently produced a campaign FactCheck that asserted that "funding for veterans is going up twice as fast under Bush as it did under [President] Clinton."

The Globe asked the Kerry campaign for documentation supporting the senator's contentions, and a campaign spokeswoman cited a study portraying the administration's budget requests as falling short of what the VA needs.

Glen Johnson can be reached at johnson@globe.com.

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