NEW YORK - While remaining committed to President Bush's re-election, Sen. John McCain rose yesterday to the defense of John F. Kerry, castigating the sponsors of a new television commercial that questions the military service of the Democratic presidential nominee.
McCain said the 60-second advertisement, which began running yesterday in three battleground states, misrepresents the record of Kerry, a decorated Navy officer who commanded a Swift boat on the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War.
Kerry has made his service a central part of his presidential bid, surrounding himself with his former crewmates on the campaign trail and repeatedly invoking his time in Vietnam. But a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth announced this week that it is spending $500,000 to air an ad disparaging his record.
The commercial features a series of veterans who served in close proximity to Kerry in Vietnam and who accuse him of lying about his wartime injuries. None of those in the ad was on Kerry's Swift boat, and several of Kerry's crewmates have condemned the charges as politically motivated fabrications.
McCain, who spent five years in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp, joined the criticism. "I deplore this kind of politics," the Arizona Republican said. "I think the ad is dishonest and dishonorable. ... None of these individuals served on the boat [Kerry] commanded. Many of his crew have testified to his courage under fire."
McCain spokeswoman Crystal Benton confirmed that the statements attributed to McCain were accurate.
Lawyers for Kerry's campaign and the Democratic National Committee sent letters to about 20 television stations in the seven markets where the veterans group bought time for the commercial, calling the ad "an inflammatory, outrageous lie."
The lawyers asked the stations to refuse to air the ad and warned that if they did, they could be held responsible for "false and libelous charges made by this sponsor."
Two stations in Wisconsin and one in Iowa decided not to run the commercial after receiving the letter, according to Michael Meehan, a Kerry campaign spokesman.
The founder of the veterans group defended the commercial.
"We respect Senator McCain's right to express his opinion, and we hope he extends to us the same respect and courtesy, particularly since we served with John Kerry, we knew him well and Senator McCain did not," said retired Rear Admiral Roy Hoffmann.
The group's major financial backer, Robert J. Perry, is a Houston homebuilder and major contributor to Republicans in Texas.
McCain's comments about the ad followed his appearance Wednesday at a rally for Bush in Jacksonville, Fla. The juxtaposition underscored the unusual role he has played in this year's presidential campaign.
Both sides have sought to identify with him. McCain has made clear that in campaigning for Bush, he will not criticize Kerry. And he has defended Kerry from GOP claims that the Democrat is weak on defense.
Times staff writers Scott Gold and Peter Wallsten contributed to this article. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.