Kerry And The Vets

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., speaks at the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston, during an arrival celebration Wednesday, July 28, 2004. Kerry is joined by Vietnam swiftboat crewmates the Rev. David Alston, center, and Drew Whitlow, right.
AP
David Paul Kuhn, CBSNews.com Chief Political Writer, at the Democratic convention in Boston.

Within an hour of John Kerry's late morning arrival in Boston, he stood on board a boat in the Charles River surrounded by his former crewmates from the Vietnam War. A former swift boat commander, Kerry was once again on the water with the 12 men he served with during the war, including the one whose life he saved more than three decades ago.

A predominant theme of this Democratic National Convention is the portrayal of the nominee as a man who chose to go to Vietnam and who returned a decorated war hero. There is no mention of Kerry the antiwar activist.

"The combat experience of his life is about the only thing we are trying to convey to people," said Kerry's chief strategist Tad Devine.

So, fresh off the endorsement of 12 admirals and generals, including two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Kerry made his first speech of the convention on a white boat docked at the Charlestown Navy Yard.

Midday, within sight of the FleetCenter, as Bruce Springsteen's "No Surrender" quieted, Kerry told the audience, "We are taking this fight to the country and we are going to win back our democracy and our future."

Across town, a "basic training" session for veterans was under way, meant to instruct them on how to campaign for Kerry in their home states. This afternoon, the man who lent his credibility to Kerry when his chances seemed bleak six months ago in Iowa, former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, visited the New England veterans' shelter both he and Kerry have fought to save. A triple-amputee Vietnam veteran, Cleland has been Kerry's most public military backer.

Tonight, the 12 admirals and generals endorsing Kerry will be center stage at the convention. A video will play, with the bulk of the former commanders criticizing the current commander-in-chief, President Bush, and then speaking to Kerry's qualifications to serve as a wartime president.

In a briefing with CBS News, Kerry campaign foreign policy adviser Jamie Rubin, a former State Department spokesman under President Clinton, said the support of the generals and admirals sends "a powerful message" because they have entered the sphere of "partisan politics" to support a "fellow vet." He added that this was "part of the package" in emphasizing Kerry's national security credentials.

Though "Veterans for Kerry" was instrumental in Kerry's winning the first contest of the primary season in Iowa, polls show Kerry, the decorated veteran, still trails President Bush with veterans. But the margin is narrowing.

A June CBS News poll found that 52 percent of veterans backed Mr. Bush, while 37 percent supported Kerry. Last week, Kerry had closed the gap to 6 points, with Mr. Bush at 47 percent to Kerry's 41 percent.

The Kerry campaign contends that since veterans tend to be Republican, the narrowing of the margin is evidence that Kerry is successfully closing the national security gap with President Bush.

At about 9 p.m. Wednesday, retired Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy will introduce former Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Gen. John Shalikashvili for a prime-time speech at the FleetCenter. Rubin, Kerry's adviser, said the former Army general's address will be "especially powerful."

In a statement released by the Kerry campaign, Shalikashvili said that Kerry "as a young man" had "heeded his country's call to service when it needed him." Also in a Kerry campaign statement, Adm. William J. Crowe, the other former Joint Chief's chairman endorsing Kerry, wrote that "the current administration has an overly simplistic view" of "when to use our military," and added that the war in Iraq was a "mess."

"What you are seeing by the Democratic Party, led by John Kerry, is an unprecedented effort to talk about national security. 9/11 changed everything," said Mark Kitchens, Kerry's national security spokesman. "[National Security] makes up 50 percent of our platform," he added, "it's pivotal."

By David Paul Kuhn