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Vietnam duality challenges Kerry

Page 3 of 5 -- Kerry long felt he had an ace in the hole against such assaults: friends from Vietnam known as "the doghunters." In his tight Senate races in 1984 and 1996, Kerry brought them to Massachusetts to defend his Vietnam record from opponents' invective.

"These guys always helped voters see who John was," said John Hurley, Kerry's veterans' organizer.

Kerry knew they would play a more critical role than ever in this race. McCain's primary race in 2000 laid bare for Kerry that "an extreme fringe element" of veterans could possibly attack a fellow veteran, so the Democrat would need to control the story of his Vietnam service, Kerry advisers said. In the fall of 2001, preproduction work began on a Kerry television commercial featuring some of his Vietnam crewmates testifying to his "unchallengeable leadership"; it was broadcast to great effect in Iowa only 11 days before the caucus vote last winter.

The Democrat's preoccupation with McCain's failed race led him to call an unusual meeting in 2002: Aides from McCain's primary organization met with Kerry to talk about the role of veterans and the shadows of Vietnam in modern politics. They echoed McCain's advice from 2000 -- veterans could be enormously helpful or hurtful in another veteran's bid to become commander in chief.

"The key to veterans was having a communications network so veterans can knock down rumors that can spread like wildfire," said one person close to Kerry of the McCain camp's view, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

McCain's primary bid fell apart in South Carolina's early primary, and his experience there was one reason Kerry chose to go to Charleston for his kickoff announcement in September 2003. He wanted to make clear that the veterans' attacks that hobbled McCain would not hurt Kerry.

Indeed, Kerry hyped his Vietnam service at the kickoff, asking his former crewmates to join him on stage. But campaign aides were frustrated when the media did not embrace the war hero storyline and focused instead on the race with then-front-runner Howard Dean. As Dean gained momentum, Kerry's advisers publicly shrugged off the polls, but one statistic stunned some of them.

"A staggering amount of people still didn't know that John was a Vietnam veteran -- it was extraordinary," McKean said. "We felt like John's story wasn't breaking through, and it was a critical part of who he was and a critical part of the campaign."

Part of the problem was the candidate. Kerry rarely opened up about Vietnam, leaving the glory for his crewmates to share. But he concentrated on overcoming his own Brahmin-bred modesty, advisers said, talking more than ever about how he had "bled for his country" and killed Viet Cong.

"In all candor, John doesn't talk about Vietnam much at all as a person -- he's a pretty private person. He's not one to sit there and get into the details about it," Hurley said.   Continued...

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