Mr Kerry must stop complaining and fight back

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The Republican convention is one week away, but the US election campaign is already set to be exceptionally vicious. John Kerry's decision to lodge a complaint with the election watchdog, the Federal Election Commission, is evidence of how acrimonious the contest has already become. Complaining, however, brings its own difficulties. In the macho world of American politics, appealing to the referee is a sign of weakness and evidence that the Bush campaign's recent barbs are hitting home. Otherwise, why complain?

The Republican convention is one week away, but the US election campaign is already set to be exceptionally vicious. John Kerry's decision to lodge a complaint with the election watchdog, the Federal Election Commission, is evidence of how acrimonious the contest has already become. Complaining, however, brings its own difficulties. In the macho world of American politics, appealing to the referee is a sign of weakness and evidence that the Bush campaign's recent barbs are hitting home. Otherwise, why complain?

Mr Kerry's specific objection is that television adverts casting aspersions on his Vietnam war record are not only untrue, but have been funded by a Bush front organisation. Were the Bush campaign found to have funded, commissioned or approved the adverts, it would have broken the rules. Mr Bush's staff insist that the Texas-based organisation, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, is a private, independent initiative and nothing to do with them.

For those of a suspicious, or pro-Kerry, disposition, Mr Bush and his entourage have form in this area. Every election Mr Bush has fought, with the possible exception of his first failed bid for Congress, has entailed the most despicable and morally dubious claims against his opponent. Each time, though, Mr Bush has been able to claim that other, baser, campaigners have acted without reference to him; too bad he was the beneficiary.

This time, too, it seems that it will be nigh impossible to pin anything on Mr Bush. This leaves Mr Kerry with the option of continuing his rebuttals and appearing defensive, or taking the low road as well and risking his reputation - one of his strongest selling points - as an honourable man.

The best Mr Kerry can hope for is that his complaint will temporarily deter the least scrupulous of Mr Bush's supporters. But ruthless cunning has long been part of US elections, and voters are swayed by it, even as they deplore it. If Mr Kerry made a mistake, it was ever to believe Mr Bush's promise not to challenge his patriotism. As another war hero, John McCain, discovered in 2000, fighting George Bush requires all the resilience and toughness needed in Vietnam, and more besides.

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