Republican PR pros play major role in anti-Kerry veterans group

WASHINGTON: A handful of Republican PR strategists have been the driving force in recent weeks behind Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, an anti-John Kerry group making waves in the race for President.

WASHINGTON: A handful of Republican PR strategists have been the driving force in recent weeks behind Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, an anti-John Kerry group making waves in the race for President.

The group has been running ads in swing states attacking the Democratic nominee's much-heralded record as a Vietnam war hero. They charge that Kerry lied in order to receive military honors and made specious accusations against fellow troops while later protesting the war.

Merrie Spaeth, president of Dallas-based Spaeth Communications and a longtime GOP strategist, helped form the group this spring and craft its message. She has since handed day-to-day control to Creative Response Concepts, a GOP-affiliated firm in Washington.

Spaeth's role in the group is attracting attention, largely because of her role in an independent ad campaign critical of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) during the 2000 Republican primary. The Swift Boat Veterans are operating as an independent group outside campaign finance rules, but are being accused of having White House ties. Spaeth's involvement in both campaigns is being cited as evidence of a link. Calls for comment to her office were referred to Creative Response Concepts.

Mike Russel, an SVP at that agency, said that Spaeth is no longer actively involved in the group, but that his firm is helping get media attention for individual members.

"Essentially, she heard their stories and worked with them to better convey those stories in a manner that people who are not active-duty or retired military can understand," said Russel. "We're handling the communications aspect now, helping with media outreach and dissemination of our daily message."

Crisis control has become part of the job, as well. One of the group's members, former Lt. Cmdr. George Elliot, called elements of his participation "a terrible mistake" in an interview with The Boston Globe earlier this month. Elliot has since released an affidavit saying he was misquoted by the Globe and that he "fully reaffirms" his actions with the group, but it has gotten little media attention in comparison to the Globe interview.

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