New York (CNSNews.com) - Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe called it disgraceful for a Republican delegate to distribute mock Purple Heart bandages, and he said it differed greatly from Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry's decision to throw away his medals in 1971.
Democrats reshuffled their lineup of speakers at their Tuesday press briefing to criticize conservative leader Morton Blackwell for passing out the mock Purple Hearts to delegates at the Republican National Convention Monday.
"There was something that happened on the floor of the Republican convention last night that was so disgraceful, so despicable, so over the top, that we need to interrupt this [press] conference," McAuliffe said.
But when asked if it was equally disgraceful of Kerry to throw away his medals or ribbons at a 1971 anti-war protest, McAuliffe drew a distinction.
"John Kerry earned those medals and ribbons, and he had every right to do what he wanted to do with them," McAuliffe said. "He went over and served this nation with distinction in two tours of duty."
Democrats have been on the defensive for nearly a month after questions about Kerry's Vietnam service first arose. The group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth has released television ads and a best-selling book casting doubt on Kerry's Purple Heart medals and his Silver and Bronze stars.
Blackwell, a Virginia delegate who leads the Leadership Institute, distributed between 250 and 300 of the bandages Monday before Republican Party leaders clamped down.
In response Tuesday, Democrats dispatched U.S. Rep. Charlie Rangel of New York, a Korean War veteran, to lead the attack on Republicans.
"When America and the world first heard atrocities were committed on foreign detainees at Abu Ghraib, we wanted so badly to believe that a handful of GIs did these things on their own," Rangel said Tuesday. "Last night a similar incident occurred on the floor of Madison Square Garden at the Republican convention."
McAuliffe accused his counterparts at the Republican National Committee of failing to act quickly enough Monday. He also released a two-page research report on Blackwell that pointed to his connection with the president's senior adviser Karl Rove.
"If something like this occurred on the floor of the Democratic convention," McAuliffe said, "my phone would have been off in five seconds and we would have shut it down."
He added, "Once again, this president and all the Republicans will claim ignorance. It's like every other issue when they attack veterans in this country. It's like the Swift Boat ads where President Bush said he had no knowledge and no one in our organization was involved at all."
Democrats have accused the Bush campaign of coordinating with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. One of Bush's lawyers resigned last week after acknowledging he offered legal advice to the veterans' group. The Bush campaign has denied any formal affiliation.
Rangel said he hopes the issue of Vietnam disappears from the political campaign. He expressed outrage at Blackwell's action.
"I'd like to believe that some sick, insensitive delegates did this mocking Senator Kerry's three Purple Hearts," Rangel said. "But in doing this, they insult not only those who have fallen and those who survived, not only the armed forces, but they insult the United States of America and those who love it so much."
At a rally Monday, Rangel criticized Kerry's response to the Vietnam flap. He said Kerry should have acted more "outraged" when questions of his service first arose.
Retired Gen. Merrill "Tony" McPeak, who Democrats have used in ads attacking Bush, offered a challenge to the Republican delegates who wore the bandages.
"I think we ought to offer a bounty to any of those Band-Aid wearers who have ever seen combat," McPeak told reporters.
McAuliffe, who has repeatedly raised questions about Bush's service during Vietnam, said the issue of Kerry's service would disappear from the campaign if the president took a more aggressive approach to condemn the anti-Kerry veterans.
"George Bush's boots never went to Vietnam, and that's his right not to go," McAuliffe said. "But he does not have the right to smear our veterans and the people who've served our nation with distinction."
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