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Kerrey calls for GOP to retract military ballot accusations

MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- Battered by accusations that they tried to disenfranchise military voters, Vice President Al Gore's campaign enlisted a war hero of their own Tuesday to call on Republicans to retract those "unfair and irresponsible" claims.

Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic presidential candidate and Medal of Honor winner, said allies of Texas Gov. George W. Bush were attempting to undercut the legitimacy of a possible Gore victory in Florida's tight presidential recount.

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"Many of the things that are being said, if they are believed by the American people as the truth, will cast a pall of illegitimacy over the vice president if he ends up being the person that wins," Kerrey said.

Bush aides and Republican surrogates, including retired Persian Gulf war commander Norman Schwarzkopf, have blasted their Democratic rivals for having more than 1,400 overseas absentee ballots disqualified in Florida counties, many for lack of postmarks. Many of those ballots were presumed to have been from service members supporting Bush.

Republicans have said lawyers for Gore, the Democratic presidential nominee, plotted to disqualify as many military votes as possible based on "technicalities." Democrats had circulated a memorandum detailing what was required for Florida absentee ballots to be counted -- including the signatures of a voter and a witness, a date and a postmark.

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    Kerrey said Tuesday service members had a responsibility to make sure their ballots were properly witnessed and postmarked.

    "If they have a legal ballot, it should be counted. If it is not a legal ballot, it should not be counted," Kerrey said. "Men and women in the military should not expect, and do not expect, to be treated in some fashion that has them being a pawn in a political argument that's very tense and very passionate here in Florida."

    The Republican attack over military absentee votes had Gore allies on the defensive over the weekend. Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a Democrat, announced Tuesday that counties should count overseas ballots that bear no postmark, restating a non-binding opinion he issued Monday.

    Gore's running mate, Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, said on Sunday the military ballots should be given the benefit of the doubt, and two Democratic senators -- Florida's Bob Graham and Georgia's Zell Miller -- said the military ballots should be counted.

    Bush camp dismisses Florida AG's opinion

    Butterworth, who served as Gore's campaign chief in the Sunshine State, told county elections supervisors and other canvassing board members: "No man or woman in military service to this nation should have his or her vote rejected solely due to the absence of a postmark."

    Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer called Butterworth's announcement "a belated attempt at damage control."

    "After successfully knocking out as many military votes as they could find, the Democrats don't like the criticism they are receiving, so they've issued a political press release that has no legal impact," Fleischer said. "They accomplished their mission and now they're running for cover. They never should have targeted our nation's servicemen and women in the first place."

    The emotionally laden charges continued Tuesday, as New York GOP Rep. John Sweeney said Gore's campaign was "actively and directly attempting to disenfranchise the brave men and women who are defending freedom."

    "It would be very difficult to serve as commander-in-chief when you try to disenfranchise those very men and women, and it's a very said day for America," Sweeney said.

    Sweeney and Indiana Rep. Steve Buyer argued that federal law trumped state law governing military ballots, and did not require a postmark.

    "This is a federal election, and the federal statute is what rules here," said Buyer, chairman of a House subcommittee on military personnel and a Gulf war veteran.

    Kerrey defends hand recounts

    Kerrey said he agreed to go to Florida on Gore's behalf to rebut the Republican arguments because "they're reckless, they're irresponsible and they're wrong."

    He said statements by the Bush campaign were "grossly unfair and irresponsible and should be retracted, because they will make it difficult -- if it is the vice president who emerges the winner in Florida -- for him as the 43rd president of the United States to do his job."

    If Bush is declared the winner of the Florida recount and wins the state's pivotal 25 electoral votes, Gore was prepared to recognize Bush as the rightful president, Kerrey said.

    He said Republican complaints about overseas ballots should prompt them to examine some of their own complaints about the manual recounts under way in three heavily Democratic counties in south Florida, where canvassing boards are inspecting punch-card ballots where voters may not have completely marked their choices in the presidential race.

    If Republicans want to rethink the votes of "people who were treated unfairly because the rules did not accommodate for their circumstances," Kerrey said, "Are they willing to do the same thing for an 85-year-old who simply did not have the strength to punch through a punch card?"

    "If Gov. Bush is willing to say that we ought to take intent into account in dealing with overseas voters, then I challenge him to say the same thing for the rest of Florida voters," he added.


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    Tuesday, November 21, 2000

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