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Kerry Ad Wars: Unsheathing a Two-Edged Sword

Sen. John Kerry is having his first real test as the Democratic nominee for president. Two ads produced by an independent campaign group have questioned his valor in Vietnam and impugned his patriotism because he turned from warrior to war protester back home. One ad makes him out as a liar, the other as a traitor, and they have suddenly become the talk of the campaign-conscious nation.

More than a few observers have been struck by the ferocity of this August assault, and by the apparent lack of preparation for it in Kerry's camp.

At first, the Kerry folks treated the ads as a minor annoyance, acting surprised that anyone was taking them seriously. Indeed, the original airtime buy in a handful of states was so modest as to suggest the ads would be off the air before anyone noticed.

But plenty of Web and cable news producers noticed, and so did lots of talk show hosts. Next thing the Kerry people knew, they had a perceptual crisis on their hands. Polls showed roughly half the people in the country had seen the ads, or thought they had. And Kerry's standing among veterans took a spill in a nationwide poll.

So Kerry switched gears and counterattacked. He accused the White House of complicity in smear tactics. He filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission. And he brought out several more witnesses to buttress his version of events in Vietnam 35 years ago. Even more important, some participants in the relevant battle who had been silent stepped forward to support Kerry on their own.

Several large news organizations have also investigated the charges in the first ad, which focuses on the incidents for which Kerry won his five medals, and found Kerry and friends more credible than their critics. The second ad, which objects to Kerry's allegations of atrocities in 1971 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is a different matter. It reopens an old wound that has divided veterans for decades and provides a rationale for the personal animus on display in the first ad.

Let's say Kerry is winning on points in the media debate over his service record, and project that he will prevail in the court of public opinion. This episode could still be costly. No challenger wants to spend his TV ad dollars playing defense. He needs to be carrying the fight to the incumbent. This will be doubly difficult as the national news organizations go into convention mode and focus on the Republicans' messages from this week through Labor Day.

The ambush on Kerry's war record should not have come as a shock. Vietnam is one of the more enduring conflicts in our national history, and arguments about it can make the world of 1969 return in a flash for those who were there. Stir the ghost from its slumber and you will have to deal with the unpredictable results.

And in this case, there can be little doubt that the ghost was summoned by Kerry himself. At the Democratic convention in Boston, the new nominee had a unique chance to show the nation one thing about himself, one thing that would define him. He chose to make it his four-month tour of combat duty in Vietnam.

It makes sense that he would do so. That service, during which he received five medals, has been of great use to him in politics. It mattered when he made his first abortive bid for Congress in 1972 and it mattered throughout the 2004 presidential nominating contest.

In fact, it was the reappearance of Jim Rassmann and others of Kerry's service buddies that helped kick-start what had been a lackluster campaign in Iowa last winter. When Kerry won big in the January caucuses, he packed the stage with veterans, some in wheelchairs. He did the same the next week when he won the primary in New Hampshire.

By the time this process reached the nominating convention in late July, Kerry was not running for president so much as for commander in chief. The image of the young officer "reporting for duty" to his country became the leitmotif of the Kerry candidacy. And it surely offered more romance than, say, a summary of his 20 years of Senate votes and committee hearings. How timely it all seemed, too, with the nation facing a daunting war on terrorism with no end in sight.

But for every thrust and cut in politics there is a parry and a counter-thrust. The Republicans were never going to cede the hero-patriot ground to the Democratic nominee without a fight. And the presence of a ready-made group of Kerry critics, some of whom were debating him in public more than 30 years ago, merely assured the battle would be bitterly fought and swiftly joined.

Those who thought George W. Bush would never risk a comparison with his own checkered history in the National Guard were presuming too much. In fact, the anti-Kerry ads have done their work while Bush has kept his distance. The White House denies any involvement in the ads, as does the Bush campaign. The president himself repeats a mantra about Kerry's honorable service and his own dislike for independently funded attack ads from either side. That's his story, and he's sticking to it.

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Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for
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