Trying to defuse a crisis that could give the GOP a powerful opening, Democratic Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal said Tuesday that he "misspoke" in claiming more than once that he served in Vietnam, and he dismissed the furor as a matter of "a few misplaced words."
At a news conference where he surrounded himself with veterans, the Connecticut attorney general and far-and-away front-runner to replace retiring Democrat Christopher Dodd said he meant to say he served "during" Vietnam instead of "in" Vietnam. He said the statements were "totally unintentional" errors that occurred only a few times out of hundreds of public appearances.
Democrats in Connecticut and Washington stood by Blumenthal, and neither party said the incident was enough to instantly sink his candidacy. But the controversy raised Republican hopes of taking a seemingly safe seat away from the Democrats and reducing their Senate majority.
"On a few occasions, I have misspoken about my service and I regret that. And I take full responsibility," said Blumenthal, a trim, square-jawed figure with the bearing of a military man. "But I will not allow anyone to take a few misplaced words and impugn my record of service to our country."
The crisis erupted when The New York Times reported that Blumenthal had repeatedly distorted his military service. The story included quotations and a video of Blumenthal saying at a 2008 event that he had "served in Vietnam." The newspaper also said Blumenthal intimated more than once that he was a victim of the abuse heaped on Vietnam veterans upon their return home.
At a veterans event in Shelton, Conn., for example, he said, "When we returned from Vietnam, I remember the taunts, the verbal and even physical abuse we encountered," according to a 2008 Connecticut Post story.
Blumenthal, 64, joined the Marine Reserve in 1970 and served six years, none of it overseas. He put in much of his time in Washington, where he took part in such projects as fixing a campground and working on a Toys for Tots drive, according to the Times.
He received at least five military deferments that enabled him to stay out of the war between 1965 and 1970, during which time he went to Harvard, studied in England and landed a job in the Nixon White House. Once he secured a spot in the Marine Reserve, he had almost no chance of being sent to Vietnam, the newspaper reported.
One of Blumenthal's Republican opponents, former WWE wrestling executive Linda McMahon, claimed to have given video of the Norwalk event to the Times after more than two months of "deep, persistent" research.
The Times refused to comment on its sources.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said it was not surprised that McMahon's campaign "cherry-picked" the quotes, "considering all of the debauchery" at the WWE under her watch. And Connecticut Democratic chairwoman Nancy DiNardo called the accusations "the lowest kind of political smear."
Blumenthal is widely known for his dedication to veterans issues, attending numerous funerals and military sendoffs. He has spoken at hundreds of events, many times about the mistreatment veterans received after returning from Vietnam. Blumenthal is also known as a straight-arrow and a man of integrity.
"People are going to look at him differently," said John Feehery, a GOP consultant in Washington. "For someone like him it's even worse, because he's got this squeaky-clean image."
Blumenthal received draft deferments while attending Harvard, completing a fellowship in England, working on a project at The Washington Post and serving as an aide to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then President Richard Nixon's adviser on urban affairs.
Blumenthal bristled at the way the Times characterized his military record, saying the story "really implies that there was kind of special favors or treatment involved in my entering the reserves, which is in fact completely untrue." He said he joined the Reserve by looking it up in the phone book and calling, and added that there were no guarantees that he wouldn't be sent to Vietnam.
"A lot of people were making different choices during that period. Some people decided not to serve. I could have continued in the White House with a deferment," he said. "I wanted to move on with my life. I wanted to serve the country, and I'm proud of the fact that I made that decision and served and reached the rank of sergeant in the Marine Corps reserves."
Veterans who stood behind him at the podium at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in West Hartford said Blumenthal's commitment was without question.
"I'm here today because I couldn't let these malicious, deceptive charges against my good friend Dick go unanswered," said Peter Galgano, a spokesman for the Marine Corps League of Connecticut. Galgano said he had seen Blumenthal speak at dozens of veterans events and he was always "completely straightforward about his honorable service."
Another Republican opponent, former Rep. Rob Simmons, a Vietnam veteran, said he had not heard Blumenthal make any misstatements, but added: "He owes an apology to those whose service he has undeservedly capitalized on for his own political purposes."
Questions about Blumenthal's military service come just days before Connecticut Democrats meet at their party convention on Friday to endorse a candidate. Blumenthal is facing a challenge for the nomination from Mystic businessman Merrick Alpert, but is expected to easily win the party's endorsement.
Polls in recent days showed Blumenthal leading his GOP challengers in hypothetical head-to-head matchups by 30 to 40 percentage points.
Given the stakes for both sides — the tough environment for Democrats, and the GOP's determination to retake control of the Senate by picking up 10 seats — the Democrats moved quickly to contain the damage, circulating videos showing the candidate being careful to portray his Vietnam service accurately.
In a televised March debate, Blumenthal stated clearly he had not actually served in Vietnam during the war when asked a question about using military force in Iran.
"People know him, they know he has a strong record of fighting for people in Connecticut for a long time," said Chris Kofinis, a Democratic consultant in Washington. "People, I think, are forgiving."
Dodd called Blumenthal "an honorable man who has served his state and country proudly" and "will be a great United States senator."