updated 8/31/2004 1:26:38 PM ET 2004-08-31T17:26:38

Democrats on Tuesday accused the GOP leadership of organizing a demonstration against candidate John Kerry’s war record, calling “purple heart bandages” handed out by a convention delegate a slap at all veterans who have won the decoration.

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“They insulted the United States of America, even though the president belatedly supported the combat record of John Kerry,” said Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, a military veteran himself.

Republican Chairman Ed Gillespie asked delegate Morton Blackwell of Arlington, Va., to quit handing out the bandages, which carried the message: “It was just a self-inflicted scratch, but you see I got a Purple Heart for it.”

The purple heart bandages were visible on some delegates Monday afternoon but were not in evidence by Monday night when party members delivered the convention’s first major speeches. Blackwell had distributed about 250 of the bandages.

Kerry won three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star as a Navy lieutenant in Vietnam. Members of the group sponsoring television ads challenging his account of his wartime service contend Kerry’s own fire caused the wound that led to his first medal. Navy records and other veterans don’t support the charge.

“This symbol is a very moving one,” Rangel said of the Purple Heart. “In many of the homes of the survivors that’s all they have to remember their loved ones, some survivors can’t see and some can’t walk. All they ask is a little dignity.”

Democrats had planned to shift their focus Tuesday to domestic politics until the publicity stunt lured them back to discussing the Vietnam War. The anti-Kerry veterans group has criticized Kerry for, among other things, earning Purple Hearts for superficial wounds that required no hospitalization.

Retired Gen. Merrill McPeak, former chief of staff of the Air Force, said thousands of Purple Hearts have been awarded in Iraq and “the numbers will continue to accumulate.”

“This is outrageous,” McPeak said. “This isn’t just a few foolish people. This had to be organized at the convention. It has to represent an official view. We have to demand that the president himself denounce this.”

Democrats eventually steered their rapid-response briefing, given just blocks from the GOP convention, to domestic issues and criticism of President Bush’s claims to be a compassionate conservative.

Reps. Ciro Rodriguez of Texas, Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio and Greg Meeks of New York argued that the Bush domestic agenda has shown compassion only for big corporations, the wealthy and special interests.

“It’s difficult to make the case that they’re compassionate when the poverty rate has risen and energy costs and health care costs are continuing to go up,” said Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack.

Republican spokesman Jim Dyke said, “Democrats continue to try and hide their own candidates’ many positions on the same issue (Iraq) by attacking the president’s leadership.”

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