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Senators Give Kerry Advice

Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) urged Sen. John Kerry on Wednesday to continue highlighting his Vietnam War service in his presidential campaign, saying it is important for voters to compare the military credentials and personal wartime experience of Kerry against that of President Bush.

“This man is a national hero,” Byrd said in an interview a few hours after meeting privately with the Massachusetts Democrat in his Capitol Hill office. “All he needs to say is, ‘I was there. I went to fight. I have fought and I carry the scars of battle.’ This other fellow downtown — he can’t say that.”

The comments came as Kerry came to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to visit with Byrd and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), before meeting separately with Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) to seek advice on winning their respective states as well as discussing a variety of public-policy topics. Later in the day, Kerry also met with Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader.

Byrd’s critique was among the harshest he has given since since the presidential campaign officially began in early March. Byrd has been an outspoken critic of Bush’s handling of the Iraq war.

His comments on Wednesday referred to Bush’s decision to enlist stateside in the Air National Guard during the Vietnam War, while Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, won several medals for his service as swift boat officer on the Mekong Delta.

Byrd, a lawmaker known for his legendary focus on policy matters than on electoral politics, also urged fellow Democrats in Congress to become involved in Kerry’s campaign so that Bush can be defeated in November.

“I believe the greatest service that we can render is to help him win this election,” Byrd said.

The Kerry campaign believes it can win Louisiana and West Virginia in November, even though both states were won by then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in 2000. In 1996, both states went for then-President Bill Clinton.

“I think Kerry is a legitimate, good candidate and I think he is capable of carrying Louisiana,” Breaux said after meeting with Kerry. “I think he can present a mainstream message of bringing the country together and not dividing the country and managing the government in a bipartisan fashion.”

Unlike then-Vice President Al Gore, who devoted little time to West Virginia during the 2000 campaign, Kerry has visited the state multiple times and has indicated that it is a top priority for his campaign.

“In West Virginia you do it door-to-door, even if you can only do it a little bit,” said Rockefeller. “You go walk up people’s steps, knock on their door and put yourself at their mercy. … You don’t have a lot of people with you and you don’t bring in outside celebrities.”

Rockefeller said that the issue of Kerry’s vice presidential running mate was not raised at the meeting. The war in Iraq was discussed, Rockefeller said, but he added that there was no talk about intelligence issues.

“He was asking advice,” said Rockefeller, the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “It was a courtesy.”

Kerry did discuss the No. 2 slot with Breaux, but the Louisianan described the exchange as a broad discussion. “We just talked in general terms about the qualities they need, and that was it,” Breaux said.

Breaux, a high-profile centrist, predicted the election will be determined by “5 to 8 percent” of the nation’s undecided voters, and he said that Kerry understands the need to not only appease the Democratic base but also to appeal to the concerns of moderates.

Michael Meehan, a senior Kerry adviser, described the meetings as a chance for Kerry “to consult with some of his longtime friends in the Senate who come from critical battleground states for this fall’s election.”

The meetings are just the latest sign of how the Massachusetts Senator is actively seeking advice and support from his Democratic colleagues in Congress. The Massachusetts Senator’s aides frequently brief Senate and House Democrats on campaign developments, and Kerry’s headhunter in the search for a running mate has sought advice from Democratic leaders. In addition, several Congressional Democrats have been tapped to fill important roles at the Democratic National Committee and the party’s platform committee this election.

“The key to our success this fall is to have a united Democratic Party and to have all of our top leadership working together to beat George Bush,” Meehan said. “John Kerry knows firsthand how important [Members] are on the campaign trail over the next five months.”

Kerry’s decision to engage his Democratic colleagues in his campaign stands in stark contrast to Gore’s strategy of keeping Congressional Democrats at arm’s length in 2000.

“The Kerry effort on Capitol Hill is light-years ahead of where the Gore campaign was four years ago,” acknowledged a senior Gore campaign aide who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Members are now more informed and engaged in a Kerry victory.”

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