Richard Blumenthal insisted Thursday night he was moving on, leaving behind questions about ill-chosen words like, “I wore the uniform in Vietnam.”
In case there was any doubt, Blumenthal didn’t break stride as he left a friendly Hartford Democratic town committee, trailed by a reporter.
“I’m moving on to the real problems that real people have: Jobs, health care, economic recovery, education,” Blumenthal said, quickly descending the circular steps at City Hall. “And that’s where I’m going.”
It may take a while to get there.
Tonight, Blumenthal will accept the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, but the campaign the state’s most popular Democrat anticipated for years is stuck on a single, ugly question: Did he willfully mislead audiences into believing he served in Vietnam?
Two things are undisputed: without embellishment, Blumenthal has repeatedly and accurately described his military service as a stateside Marine Reservist; and on occasion he has unequivocally placed himself in Vietnam.
The controversy has spilled over into another U.S. Senate nominating convention tonight: the state GOP. The issue was fueled by the campaign of Republican Senate candidate Linda McMahon, which supplied the New York Times with a video in which Blumenthal said he served “in Vietnam.”
But it has energized the campaign of her principal rival, former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, who served 3 1/2 years in Vietnam, 19 months as an Army intelligence officer and 21 months as a CIA operative.
“People who were undecided have shifted in my direction,” Simmons said.
Simmons, who had once said he would not wage a primary without the endorsement of the convention, is keeping his options open, believing he could win a primary against McMahon, who plans to spend $50 million of her own money on the campaign.
Republicans believe a wounded Blumenthal can be beaten now on a “conventional budget” of several millions that Simmons could raise, he said.
McMahon, whose campaign first touted its outing of Blumenthal and then backed away, tried to maintain her own focus.
“I have to tell you that the issues in this race haven’t changed at all, not since I got into the race in September. I’ve still been focused on jobs, putting people back to work, our economy, debt, spending, making government smaller,” she said. “And I think that’s going to continue to be the focus of the people of Connecticut. I thank Rob Simmons for his service record, but this race is about jobs and the economy. That’s where we are going to stay.”
But that’s not where the attention was on the eve of the convention.
Orson Swindle, a Marine aviator who was John McCain’s cellmate as a POW and has endorsed Simmons, said Thursday that Blumenthal gets no credit for repeatedly telling audiences, including during a televised debate, that he was a veteran of the Vietnam-era, not the Vietnam war.
“No one should be crediting Dick Blumenthal as being only a part-time liar,” Swindle said. “The plain language Blumenthal has confessed to using repeatedly is very clear, and any additional comments he may have made accurately describing when he served do not revise his false comments about where he served or make them any less a lie.”
Other veterans were more forgiving, including former Democratic State Chairman John F. Droney, an Army medic in Vietnam. “He made a mistake,” Droney said.
On Monday night, the New York Times posted a video of Blumenthal telling an audience in Norwalk in 2008, “We have learned something important since the days that I served in Vietnam.” Not posted was a section of the same video in which Blumenthal said he “served in the military, during the Vietnam era.”
By dawn, the story had gone national, feeding outrage on cable news and around the blogosphere. On Tuesday afternoon, Blumenthal said during a nationally televised news conference he had “misspoke,” tripped over “misplaced words.”
He said he was aware that on occasion he had referred to service “in” Vietnam, when he meant “during” Vietnam.
The next day, The Advocate of Stamford published a story quoting him as saying on Veterans Day in 2008, “I wore the uniform in Vietnam, and many came back to all kinds of disrespect.”
On Thursday night, Blumenthal would not entertain questions about whether he knew from his own collection of news clippings that there was more to come.
“I think I’ve answered most of these questions,” said Blumenthal, who paused only as he reached a revolving door at the bottom of the stairs.
An NBC 30 news crew arrived and asked for a moment.
“I think I’ve got to run,” Blumenthal said.
He looked toward the door.
The television reporter told him he just wanted to ask him to say on camera why he came to visit the town committee, which he addressed for 4 minutes, 12 seconds and then left to a standing ovation. Blumenthal relented.
“I am overwhelmed by the outpouring,” Blumenthal began.
His words were drowned out by the squeaking of the revolving door.
“Do you want to do that again?” Blumenthal asked.
The reporter did.
“I am overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from Hartford and, really, all around the state,” Blumenthal said on his second take. “I came here to thank these folks for their help and encouragement and to ask for them to continue to fight with me.”
The reporter asked, “Any doubt you’ll get the nomination tomorrow?”
Blumenthal has one opponent, Merrick Alpert, who has been shunned by at least half the state’s Democratic town committees and is given no chance of qualifying for a primary.
“I’ll leave to the political pundits whether there will be the same kind of outpouring of support,” Blumenthal replied. “I can tell you categorically there has been an overwhelming level of support.”
And then he was gone.
Upstairs, Blumenthal had worked the room, doing his best to avoid Alpert, who had come seeking a chance to talk to the committee members.
Alpert said he is telling every Democrat who will listen that Blumenthal’s campaign is fatally wounded.
“If the general election was coming this Tuesday, we lose,” he said. “Richard Blumenthal is in free fall.”
Marcel Cicero didn’t think so. She brought her 6-year-old daughter, Tomie Smith, to meet Blumenthal.
“On career day, she went to school as a politician,” Cicero said.