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Veterans face off at State House

Democratic group clashes with others, GOP leader

The contentious dispute over campaign ads attacking Senator John F. Kerry's war record resounded in the halls of the State House yesterday, as veterans on both sides of the political divide confronted one another.

The face-off began outside the State House, when 10 members of Massachusetts Veterans for Kerry-Edwards attempted to deliver to a representative of Governor Mitt Romney a letter written by former Georgia senator Max Cleland to President Bush. The letter, which Cleland attempted to deliver to Bush at his Texas ranch last week, calls on the president to denounce advertisements by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that question Kerry's military record.

The pro-Kerry veterans wanted Romney to give the letter to Bush when he campaigns with him in New Hampshire on Monday.

However, the Democratic group had its event crashed by another group of veterans upset with Kerry's attendance record in Congress. They held signs reading "Where is John (Waldo) Kerry?" and "Kerry No Show," and they expressed outrage at Kerry's high absence rate in Congress this year. The group, calling itself Veterans for Working Senators, echoed a message put forward by the Republican Party.

While the demonstration by the Working Senators group was peaceful, the Kerry supporters clashed verbally with Darrell Crate, the state Republican Party chairman, when he stepped forward to accept their letter on behalf of the governor.

Crate attempted to turn the tables on the pro-Kerry veterans by offering them a letter from the Working Senators group demanding that Kerry attend more Senate sessions. When Crate tried to read the letter, the Kerry veterans shouted him down.

"It was my understanding that we are going to take our letter to the governor's office, and that's what we're going to do," said Doug Clifford, the state director of Veterans for Kerry-Edwards.

One pro-Kerry veteran screamed, "Is the governor here?" Crate answered no. Another veteran shouted that Lieutenant Governor Kerry "Healey's here; let's give it to Governor Healey." They marched into the State House with the other veterans at their heels.

A similarly heated exchange played out in front of the governor's office, as Crate again attempted to have the pro-Kerry veterans accept his letter.

After failing in that effort, Crate left, leaving Clifford to deliver his letter to the Office of External Relations.

"What we want is for the president to acknowledge that these veterans have not told the truth, and that this whole campaign is essentially a smear campaign," Clifford said. "We are concerned about the fact that this campaign has been funded by the Republican Party, the Bush campaign, and its very coordinated efforts."

The day ended with the Republican Party filing ethics charges against House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran's press secretary, Charles Rasmussen, who Crate said violated state ethics rules by attending the event. While Rasmussen did not speak or offer support for the pro-Kerry veterans, Crate said the presence of members of the state Democratic Party and the Kerry campaign made the event clearly political.

"It is very clear that Charlie Rasmussen was in the thick of the crowd, playing a part in a political event on state time," Crate said. "He knows the law. It is clear, and I would suggest it was appropriate that around these political events he should have used an abundance of caution before he participated."

Rasmussen denied he was taking part in the event. "I was just observing," he said. "I had the pleasure during the convention of working with the Swift Boat veterans. I knew they wouldn't be there, but I just went to check it out."

A spokesman for Crate said the letter from Veterans for Working Senators will be mailed to Kerry's national campaign office.

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