Melissa Bailey Photo

(Updated) He didn’t apologize. But as he scrambled to resuscitate his battered U.S. Senate campaign Tuesday, Democrat Richard Blumenthal said he “regrets” “misspeaking.”

Then he swung back.

“I will not,” he declared, “allow anyone to take a few misplaced words and impugn my record of service to our country.”

Blumenthal made the remarks at a 2 p.m. press event at a West Hartford VFW Hall, as he scrambled to contain the damage from a New York Times expose  charging that he has falsely claimed to have served in the military in Vietnam, rather than at home in the marine reserves.

Dozens of veterans, most of them rounded up through American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) networks, stood by Blumenthal’s side inside Hannon-Hatch VFW Post 9929—even if not all plan to vote for him in November.

They said they were rallying behind a fellow vet being beat up back at home.

Despite the show of support in West Hartford, the Times expose has created a crisis for Blumenthal’s campaign for Connecticut’s open U.S. Senate seat.

One of the state’s leading Democrats, New Haven Mayor (and 2006 gubernatorial candidate) John DeStefano, earlier Tuesday urged Blumenthal to use the occasion to make a full, quick, complete apology instead of fighting back against the story. “Say you’re sorry. Mean it. And move on,” DeStefano advised.

One of the two leading Republican candidates for the seat, former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons (pictured), held his own press conference earlier Tuesday afternoon, on the steps of the state Capitol, and made a similar suggestion. Simmons told reporters Blumenthal should apologize for a 2008 statement captured on video—that he “served” in Vietnam, an untrue statement. “Too many have sacrificed too much to have their valor stolen in this way,” he said. Simmons did serve in Vietnam, for 19 months, and won two Bronze Stars. So he stands to gain the most from the Blumenthal controversy.

Later, surrounded by veterans in West Hartford, Blumenthal spoke briefly to the crowd.

Blumenthal himself began by reminding people that he did serve in the United States Marine Corps Reserves during the Vietnam War 40 years ago. He was stationed here in the U.S. He didn’t pull strings to get in, he said. “I looked them up in the phone book.” He said he’s “proud” of his service. And he spoke of attending dozens of military and veterans events a year in Connecticut as attorney general.

Then came the key moment—how he was going to address the Times expose and the subsequent attacks from his political rivals.

He didn’t apologize.

“On a few occasions I have misspoken of my service. I regret that and I take full responsibility,” Blumenthal said.

“But I will not allow anyone to take a few misplaced words and impugn my record of service to our country.

“I served in the United States Marine Corps Reserves. And I’m proud of it.”

End of statement.

After his brief speech, Blumenthal got a second, and third, chance to apologize when he spoke with reporters. Connecticut Post reporter Ken Dixon asked the candidate if he feels he owes people an apology.

“I regret those words,” Blumenthal responded.

Dixon pressed, asking Blumenthal if he was in fact apologizing.

At that point assembled vets shouted back, “No! No! No! They’re badgering you.” And Blumenthal repeated his “regret” answer.

“Babykiller” Redux?

The vets at the VFW hall said they were coming to the aid of a fellow vet.

One of them, Rusty Meek, is a diehard Republican. He said he plans to vote for Rob Simmons.

A former commander of the statewide VFW, Meek (pictured with John Schmidt, commander of the VFW post in West Hartford where the event took place) said he came to Tuesday’s event “66 percent sure” that Blumenthal was being “railroaded.” He left the event “90 percent sure” that was true.

Elliott Storm is a Blumenthal supporter. The campaign called him and asked him to show up; he called up his friends in the “Vet Pack” to join him, friends who, like him, travel around the country talking about ex-soldiers who contend with post traumatic stress syndrome.

Storm, who lives in Milford, wrote a book on the subject, called These Scars Are Sacred.

“If a man wore a uniform during those turbulent times, they were rejected and called ‘babykiller,’” Storm said at Tuesday’s event “People are still attacking veterans who served in Vietnam.” The Times story about Blumenthal’s service is a yet another example of that, he claimed.

Democrats Have His Back

Loyal Democratic politicians present Tuesday like former state Comptroller Bill Curry claimed the New York Times story may have a short term impact, but won’t damage the campaign.

“Dick’s overall reputation for integrity is about as good as it gets,” Curry said. “If there was a resume in American politics that didn’t need burnishing it would be Dick’s.“

Curry showed up late for the event and was critical of the New York Times story.

“The, ‘Did you serve in Vietnam” story—I thought we’d had a truce,” said Curry. “Wasn’t there a meeting during the Bush discussions, in fact, and didn’t we all decide we’re not doing this story anymore?”

State Sens. Jonathan Harris of West Hartford and Ed Meyer of Guilford agreed that the story is a temporary bump in the road.

“We’re human beings,” Meyer said. “I think he over-identified with the veterans and got caught up in the moment.”

“I trust him 100 percent,” Harris said.

Blumenthal’s longshot challenger for the Democratic Senate nomination, Merrick Alpert, wasn’t as forgiving.

“He’s not sorry he did it. He’s sorry he got caught doing it,” Alpert said at the back of the VFW Hall.

When Blumenthal debated Alpert back in March he was clear about not having served overseas. But that wasn’t good enough for Alpert, who also served.

“Telling people that you tell the truth 90 percent of the time is not particularly helpful,” Alpert said.


GOP Jockeying

Meanwhile, Simmons and the frontrunning Republican candidate for the Senate seat, Linda McMahon, managed to turn this development—like all others on the campaign trail—into fodder for their own intramural spat.

Monday night, after the story broke, the McMahon campaign began to take credit for supplying the New York Times with the materials for the hit on Blumenthal. The McMahon campaign even distributed to reporters a post by blogger Kevin Rennie congratulating the campaign on getting the story into the Times.

By Tuesday, McMahon scrubbed references to that story line from its website.  And both state Democrats and Republican Simmons attacked her—the Democrats, for alleged gutter politics, Simmons, well, for being embarrassed and switching course, apparently.