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It's about politics, not truth

Voters should pay little heed to attack ads, which obscure the issues

Suddenly, the presidential campaign seems to be about what did or didn't happen in the Mekong Delta 35 years ago. Did John Kerry suffer real wounds three times, and thus earn an early ticket home? Was the enemy firing at Kerry's Swift boat when he plucked Jim Rassman from the river?

We are confident that we speak for a sizable number of voters when we reply, who cares? And we hope that few will let this battle for their hearts and minds distract them from the real issues facing the country in 2004 and beyond.

Why has the campaign descended to this level? Simple. It's politics. The lowest form of politics, to be sure, but politics nonetheless.

And what's most troubling about it is that neither campaign really controls it.

The Kerry camp accuses the Bush camp of quietly orchestrating the attack ads by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who are not connected to the campaign but are bankrolled by longtime Bush supporters. Meanwhile, groups backing Kerry are airing ads attacking Bush.

The president said the right thing Monday when he called on all so-called 527 organizations to stop running attack ads. But his words are unlikely to have much effect. Too much is at stake.

— As for the substance of the claims about Kerry, we will simply note the thorough examination of the record by the Washington Post, published in Sunday's Mail Tribune. The essence of the article was that, while questions can be raised about some details, the official Navy record tends to support Kerry's version, and the Swift Boat Veterans fail to make a compelling case that the record is false.

What really motivates the veterans, of course, is not what Kerry did or didn't do in combat, but what he did when he came home: He took a public stance against the war and alleged that American soldiers had committed atrocities in Vietnam.

To his critics, Kerry's anti-war activism was beneath contempt, and they will never forgive him for it.

In a real sense, it might have been better for Kerry if he had uneventfully served out his commitment aboard a Navy ship somewhere far from Indochina. Then he could say he had served, and leave it at that.

Instead, he chose to cite his combat decorations as proof that he has the right stuff to lead the country in its struggle with terrorism. By doing that, he opened himself up to scrutiny of his service record.

That doesn't justify the attack ads, or make them any more savory. And the attacks probably would have come anyway.

We are convinced that these facts are true: Kerry served. He engaged in combat. He acquitted himself well.

We also know these facts: President George W. Bush served, for at least some time, in the Texas Air National Guard. He did not see combat.

What really matters to us, and, we trust, to most thoughtful voters, is not what either man did during Vietnam, but how each plans to lead the United States of America now.