ST. PAUL (AP) -- In a sharp attack on Sen. Paul Wellstone's record on military issues, Republican challenger Norm Coleman suggested that more U.S. troops would have died in Afghanistan if Congress had followed Wellstone in the last decade.
The charge is part of a stepped-up effort by Coleman to portray Wellstone as "far out of the mainstream when it comes to issues of national security and national defense."
Coleman flew around the state Thursday, distributing copies of defense votes since Wellstone took office in 1991. He pointed out that the senator was consistently on the losing end of lopsided votes.
"His record, until September 11th, is one that has been of the most ardent anti-war, anti-military, anti-defense senator in the United States Senate," Coleman said at the St. Paul airport, where he was joined by Vietnam and Gulf War veterans.
On the other side of a terminal where Coleman spoke, about a dozen veterans who support Wellstone came to his defense, calling the former St. Paul mayor's statements "outrageous" and "over the line."
Wellstone said in an interview that he found the comments "troubling" and "strange."
"I don't think it's the right road to go down," he said.
The senator and his backers were most upset after hearing Coleman say in a Minnesota Public Radio interview that "we would have lost more lives on the ground if we followed (Wellstone's) judgment."
Coleman toned down the remarks at the St. Paul event, but he said many of the high-tech weapons used in Afghanistan were built with money from 16 defense bills Wellstone opposed since 1991.
Wellstone supported the last three major defense bills in votes taken since December. His campaign provided a long list of defense bills, military actions and anti-terrorism measures he supported throughout his career. Wellstone said he opposed measures where spending was difficult to track.
His post-Sept. 11 votes represented a changed perspective more than a new philosophy, he said.
"What happened September 11th, all of us came together around these budgets," Wellstone said. "It's about what we saw. Our country was attacked on our own soil."
Coleman said he was questioning Wellstone's judgment, not his patriotism. Coleman said he'll be a stronger advocate for American soldiers.
"They do need to be second to none in terms of training, in terms of equipment and in terms of pay," he said. "They do need folks at home who will stand with them unquestionably."
As a college student in New York, Coleman protested against the Vietnam War. On Thursday, he said he wouldn't characterize his past actions as a mistake.
"I thought that was the right path in 1969," he said. "I'm not giving a value judgment on where I was in 1969."
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