JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- The competing passions of the Iraq War reverberated across Main Street as Rep. John Murtha was vilified as a traitor on one side and praised as a patriot on the other.
Outside the veteran Democrat's campaign office, former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland brought cheers from Murtha loyalists as he vowed to combat attempts to "Swift Boat'' the outspoken critic of the Bush administration's conduct of the war.
Across the railroad tracks at the fringe of the Downtown business district, a handful of Murtha critics denounced his statements against the war, while heralding their plans for an October rally of protest against him.
The pro-Murtha demonstration, hastily assembled to counter the news conference called by his critics in a group called Veterans for the Truth, drew a crowd of between 150 and 200, who stood under a sweltering sun listening to a series of speakers praise the hometown lawmaker.
Mr. Cleland, a triple amputee from wounds received in Vietnam, charged that the Bush administration had targeted Mr. Murtha because of his critique of the war. He said they and their allies were using tactics reminiscent of the attacks against Sen. John McCain in the 2000 Republican primary in South Carolina, Sen. John Kerry in the last presidential election and Mr. Cleland himself in his 2002 Senate re-election defeat.
"We're not going to let them Swift Boat Jack Murtha,'' he said. "Jack Murtha is right and the president is wrong and we're not going to let them assassinate Jack Murtha's character.''
The stagecraft of the Democratic event was calculated to rebut the question from some critics about Mr. Murtha's patriotism. The speakers' roster was dominated by Iraq and Vietnam veterans. Eighteen large flags stirred behind them while members of the crowd held dozens more miniature flags along with their bottles of water.
Mr. Cleland ended his speech and the rally by leading the crowd in the chant, "We've got your back, Jack. We've got your back, Jack.''
Mr. Murtha, who is being challenged for re-election by Washington County Commissioner Diana Irey, wasn't there to hear the litany of praise. He was in Eastern Pennsylvania, campaigning for Chris Carney, a Democrat challenging Republican Congressman Don Sherwood. Murtha has said he plans to be a candidate for majority leader should the Democrats recapture the House in November.
The words of the his defenders echoed across the parking lot beside the Cambria County Republican headquarters where his critics described their plans for an Oct. 1 rally capping a local and nationwide campaign.
Craig Minnick, a Johnstown lawyer and Iraq veteran who is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves, described Mr. Murtha, a decorated Marine veteran of the Vietnam War, as "irresponsible and un-American.''
At a time of war, he said, "It is reprehensible to tell the greatest military in the world that they are not making progress . . . it's obvious that John Murtha has no respect for our men in uniform.''
Along with about a dozen local supporters, he was joined by Larry Bailey, the former president of Vietnam Veterans for Truth and organizer of an anti-Kerry campaign on Capitol Hill during the 2004 presidential campaign. Mr. Bailey said he and other associates from that effort had joined in a successor group, Veterans for the Truth. He said the organization was a response to Mr. Murtha's comments in May in which he said that a Marine unit had killed civilians "in cold blood,'' in the Iraqi town of Haditha.
Yesterday, Frank Wuterich, a sergeant attatched to that Marine detachment, sued Mr. Murtha for defamation over his comment, although Sgt. Wuterich was not mentioned by name. An initial investigation, announced yesterday, supports allegations that Marines deliberately shot 24 Iraqi civilians.
Mr. Bailey, who flew in from his North Carolina home for the anti-Murtha event, emphasized that neither his current group nor 2004's Vietnam Veterans for Truth were formally tied to the better known Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. But while the organizations may be distinct, he said that he was happy to embrace the now generic term for the group's tactics.
"Of course we're Swift Boating him,'' Mr. Bailey said with a smile. "I love that term.''
More details in tomorrow's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.