MILWAUKEE - War veterans embraced Al Gore as one of their own on Tuesday as the Democratic presidential candidate swatted back at George W. Bush's assertion that America's military is in decline.
Emphasizing a resume that Bush, the Texas governor, cannot match - an Army tour in Vietnam, service on the House Intelligence and Senate Armed Services committees - Gore told a packed house at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention that his is no election year conversion.
Gore, who wore his hat from VFW Post 5021 in Tennessee, said, ''It's that year-after-year commitment to a strong American defense that makes me so concerned when others try to run down America's military for political advantage in an election.'' His audience of mostly aged veterans and their spouses applauded.
An assertion of weakness is ''not only wrong in fact, it's the wrong message to send our allies and adversaries across the world,'' the vice president said. He did not mention Bush by name.
On TV stations across 17 states, the Gore campaign debuted on Monday its first general-election ad, a biographical spot that opens with Gore's decision out of college to enlist in the Army despite deep misgivings about the Vietnam War.
To the VFW, he said: ''I became an Army reporter in Vietnam. I didn't do the most or run the gravest danger, but I was proud to wear my country's uniform.''
It is part of Gore's strategy to contrast - if only implicitly - his active duty service with Bush's stateside tour with the Texas Air National Guard during Vietnam.
Gore spoke to the veterans one day after Bush, the GOP presidential nominee, also addressed the group and accused President Clinton and Vice President Gore of presiding over a two-term slide in Pentagon morale and resources.
Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett called Gore's comments on Monday ''reactionary and defensive,'' proof that Bush's point was having an effect.
Bush got a standing ovation from the group at the end of his speech but no applause at all from some, and a number of members said Tuesday they had not been impressed.
''There were a lot of vacant seats when Bush came,'' said World War II veteran Clarence Rau of Horicon, Wis.
Rau, 79, who climbed atop his chair for a good look at Gore, said vets care that Bush, like GOP running mate Dick Cheney, avoided going to Vietnam. Cheney, who was defense secretary during the Persian Gulf War, got deferments as a student and then as an expectant father. Joseph Lieberman, Gore's running mate, also got deferments as a student and then as a father.
''I don't consider the National Guard real service because he wasn't there in Vietnam. Even if the vice president's service was minimal at least he went and served his country,'' said Rau.
Asked if Bush got a good reception here on Monday, Army vet Joseph Schirmers who fought in Korea said, ''Half and half - and I'd better not say any more.''
VFW commander in chief John Smart introduced Gore as ''a life member of the VFW,'' and the candidate waded through the convention hall to salutes from many uniformed veterans, hugs from their wives.
On stage, Gore chuckled: ''I haven't had that many hugs in a long time.''
Backstage, Gore used his position as vice president to present Madison's Ellen Blissenbach the Purple Heart for her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Blissenbach, who died in Korea 50 years ago, but whose records were sorted out just recently.
Gore opened his campaign speech with a mention of the brief ceremony.
He has proposed a 10-year, $127 billion defense package that includes the 3.7 percent military pay increase enacted this year, investments to modernize equipment and more funding for veterans hospitals.
Spokesman Chris Lehane said Gore's proposed spending on defense would probably be increased in a fall rewrite of his budget to reflect bigger surplus projections.
Bush has proposed pumping $1 billion a year more into military pay over the next five years and spending $310 million to fix schools on military bases.
Gore maintained that the $1.3 trillion, 10-year tax cut that Bush has separately proposed would leave no money for his defense proposals.
Later, Gore spoke to the Chicago convention of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. The union workers, whom Gore is counting on to turn out voters in November, couldn't get enough of his handshakes and high-fives. ''I felt a little bit like it was the Super Bowl and I was the last player introduced, running the gantlet,'' Gore said.
At dinner in the suburb of Winnetka, he raised $500,000 for the Democratic National Committee from 40 people.
On the fall debates, aides said Gore campaign chairman William Daley, who had a brief preliminary phone conversation with Bush chairman Don Evans on Monday, has asked Labor Secretary Alexis Herman and former Fannie Mae chairman James Johnson to help with negotiations.