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Inside Politics

Defending Kerry, senator blasts 'chickenhawks'

Lautenberg criticizes Cheney for questioning record

Sen. Frank Lautenberg on Wednesday points to a picture of President Bush declaring an end to major combat in Iraq last year.
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• The Candidates: Bush | Kerry
Frank Lautenberg
John McCain
John F. Kerry
George W. Bush

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg on Wednesday called Vice President Dick Cheney "the lead chickenhawk" against Sen. John Kerry and criticized other Republicans for questioning the Democratic presidential contender's military credentials.

But Sen. John McCain, a decorated war hero and former prisoner of war, scolded Lautenberg for attacking the Bush administration during the Iraq conflict and said it was time to "declare that the Vietnam War is over."

In a scathing speech on the Senate floor, Lautenberg, D-New Jersey, said that he did not think politicians should be judged by whether they had military service but added that "when those who didn't serve attack the heroism of those who did, I find it particularly offensive."

"We know who the chicken hawks are. They talk tough on national defense and military issues and cast aspersions on others," he said. "When it was their turn to serve where were they? AWOL, that's where they were."

Lautenberg pointed to a poster with a drawing of a chicken in a military uniform defining a chickenhawk as "a person enthusiastic about war, provided someone else fights it."

"They shriek like a hawk, but they have the backbone of the chicken," he said.

"The lead chickenhawk against Sen. Kerry [is] the vice president of the United States, Vice President Cheney," Lautenberg said. "He was in Missouri this week claiming that Sen. Kerry was not up to the job of protecting this nation. What nerve. Where was Dick Cheney when that war was going on?"

Lautenberg chastised members of the Bush administration for being overly eager to go to war when they had not been willing to fight themselves. He quoted a Cheney interview from the 1980s that he had "other priorities" in the '60s than military service.

In a speech Monday at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, Cheney attacked Kerry's votes in the Senate to cut weapons programs, his opposition to the 1991 Persian Gulf War and recent comments that the war on terror should not be thought of primarily as a military operation.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Tuesday that Cheney criticized Kerry on policy issues and said that "no one is questioning his military service."

But Lautenberg compared Cheney's remarks with the GOP campaign against former Sen. Max Cleland, a Georgia Democrat whose defeat in 2002 has been a sore spot to many in his party.

"Max Cleland lost three limbs in Vietnam and they shamed him so, that he was pushed out of office because he was portrayed as weak on defense. Where do they come off with that kind of stuff?" he said.

He also criticized President Bush for declaring an end to major combat operations in Iraq on May 1, 2003.

He showed a picture of Bush giving a speech on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln with the banner "Mission Accomplished" in the background.

"The mission accomplished was to get a picture that could be used in an election campaign," Lautenberg said.

Since that speech, 587 U.S. troops have died in Iraq, including 415 from hostile fire.

Lautenberg also criticized the president for saying "bring 'em on" to Iraqi insurgents.

"I served in Europe in World War II," he said. "The last thing I wanted to hear from my commander in chief, or my local commander, is dare the enemy to launch attacks against us."

McCain, the next senator to speak, said he had planned to discuss an Internet tax moratorium bill but that he felt he needed to address Lautenberg's remarks.

He said reasonable differences of opinion existed about the handling of the Iraq war but that the Senate should focus on making the operation successful.

"What are we doing on the floor of the Senate? We're attacking the president's credentials because of his service that ended ... more than 30 years ago," McCain said. "I think that's wrong. I wish we'd stop it. I wish we'd just stop, at least until the fighting in Iraq is over with."

He called for a bipartisan approach to "seeing this thing through because we cannot afford to fail."

"At least could we declare that the Vietnam War is over and have a cease-fire and agree that both candidates -- the president of the United States and Sen. Kerry served honorably -- end of story? Now let's focus our attention on the conflict that's taking place in Iraq, that is taking American lives as I speak on this floor," he said.

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