Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry struck back yesterday against a group of critics who have been impugning his Vietnam War record for the last two weeks, branding them as liars and accusing them of acting as ''a front for the Bush campaign" to do the president's ''dirty work."
Kerry, appearing stern as he drew repeated applause in a speech before a firefighters' union in Boston, weaved vivid descriptions of his four months as a Navy swift boat commander -- including ''the shrapnel in my leg," which he rarely mentions -- with invective about ''the lies about my record" from the critics, Vietnam veterans who have named themselves Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
''Here's what you really need to know about them: They're funded by hundreds of thousands of dollars from a Republican contributor out of Texas; they're a front for the Bush campaign," said Kerry, citing two $100,000 donations by Houston donor Bob J. Perry. ''And the fact that the president won't denounce what they're up to tells you everything that you need to know -- he wants them to do his dirty work.
''Of course, the president keeps telling people he would never question my service to our country. Instead, he watches as Republican-funded attack group does just that. Well, if he wants to have a debate about our service in Vietnam, here is my answer: Bring it on!" Kerry said, using a phrase that became his mantra during the primary season to one-up Bush on national security issues.
The anti-Kerry group has drawn on $200,000 from Perry, a Houston home builder, to run a 60-second television commercial in three battleground states this month and to produce a book, ''Unfit for Command," that question Kerry's war wounds and stories of heroic action that have become a thematic underpinning of his presidential campaign.
The White House and Bush's reelection campaign denied playing any role in the swift boat group's activities, but the president continued to refuse to condemn the ad, despite calls from Republican Senator John McCain and now Kerry to do so.
Over the past week, some fellow veterans and campaign advisers had been urging Kerry to respond forcefully. When he did so yesterday, however, he did not offer a point-by-point rebuttal of the group's allegations. Instead, he condemned them categorically and tried to draw Bush into the skirmish.
''Thirty years ago, official Navy reports and every person there documented my service in Vietnam and awarded me the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts. Thirty years ago, this was the plain truth. It still is. And I still carry the shrapnel in my leg from a wound in Vietnam," Kerry said, drawing one of several standing ovations from thousands of firefighters in their gold and black ''Kerry-Edwards" T-shirts at the Hynes Convention Center yesterday.
Kerry challenged Bush to condemn the Swift Boat attacks or face questions anew about his own National Guard service during the Vietnam era. Kerry allies like former Senator Max Cleland and party chairman Terry McAuliffe have previously asserted that Bush did not complete his service because his military records are incomplete; Kerry joined in the criticism most pointedly last April when, under fire for throwing away his Vietnam ribbons at a 1971 antiwar rally, he said that Bush ''can't even show or prove that he showed up for duty in the National Guard."
The Bush campaign charged yesterday that ''only one candidate in this race has attacked over military service" -- Kerry. Republicans circulated a batch of Kerry's remarks on National Guard service, while also highlighting a laudatory comment by Bush on CNN last Thursday:
''Senator Kerry is justifiably proud of his record in Vietnam, and he should be," Bush said, going on to call Kerry's service ''noble." ''The question is: Who can best lead the country in a time of war? That's really what the debate ought to be about."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan was asked repeatedly by reporters yesterday about Bush's refusal to explicitly condemn the swift boat ad, as well as Bush's silence at a forum last week when an audience member said that Kerry had incurred self-inflicted wounds in Vietnam -- echoing one of the swift boat group's charges.
''There have been a lot of false, negative charges made against the president by these shadowy groups," McClellan said. ''So if [Kerry] would join us, we could get rid of all of this unregulated soft money activity," referring to Bush's call for a ban on funding for groups like Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and Moveon.org, which has financed a TV ad assailing Bush's service record.
Some Vietnam crewmates of Kerry's urged him over the last week to personally condemn the swift boat ads, a task he left until yesterday to spokesmen and friends like McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam. But according to aides, Kerry was particularly incensed Wednesday when he heard reports that Bush donor Perry had written a second $100,000 check to continue financing the group and stayed up late that night writing eight new paragraphs to insert into the speech.
''Let me make this commitment today: Their lies about my record will not stop me from fighting for jobs that pay decently in America, for health care for all Americans, for our security -- for the issues that really matter to people that they just don't want to talk about," Kerry said.
As part of a concerted counteroffensive, Kerry spokesman David Wade said the Democrat was ''reactiviating" a team of veterans known as the ''doghunters" who defended Kerry's service record since his first Senate race, in 1984. Four of these men joined a campaign news conference yesterday morning to criticize the anti-Kerry veterans for questioning whether Kerry's injuries and actions warranted medals.
''Every time they attack John's record, they attack my record," said Bill Zaladonis, who served on Kerry's boat. ''They demean my medal, everyone who got a ribbon in Vietnan, it demeans their medals. I wish they'd stop."
A second prong in the counteroffensive is a new ad, which began running yesterday in Ohio, West Virginia, and Wisconsin -- the three states where the anti-Kerry ad aired -- in which former Green Beret Jim Rassmann recounts the story of Kerry pulling him from a Vietnam river in 1969 and saving his life while Kerry's swift boat was under fire.
A spokeman for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Steve Burke, declined to comment on Kerry's attacks. He instead released a statement by ''Unfit for Command" author John O'Neill, a critic of Kerry's for three decades, who cited ongoing disputes about whether Kerry ever entered Cambodia on swift boat missions and the precise details surrounding Kerry's rescue of Rassmann.
O'Neill said: ''These are issues Senator Kerry raised, and we regret that he uses ad hominem attacks instead of dealing with the actual facts. He is doing that because he can't deal with the truth."
Patrick Healy can be reached at email@example.com.