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Swift-Boat Revenge

How one New Yorker beat Republicans at the attack-ad game.

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They weren’t as famous as the stem-cell ads with Michael J. Fox, but the anti-Republican spots created by Jon Soltz (who served in Iraq as a captain in the Army), and his New York–based group VoteVets.org, also seemed to have hit their targets. Think of VoteVets as the Democratic version of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Two years ago, Soltz was on leave, sitting on his couch in Pittsburgh and slurping down a bowl of ramen noodles, he says, when John Kerry, whom he’d met recently at a campaign rally, called him and asked him to volunteer for his presidential run. He did, and then watched the Swifties rip Kerry. This year, Soltz changed tactics. He moved to New York to start VoteVets, a spinoff of a like-minded veterans’ nonprofit that needed a political arm and more funding. “I was telling my friends I would be the Swift Boat Captain of ’06,” Soltz, 29, says. He arrived in January with no friends and no apartment, so he slept on the floor of a closetlike office in the East Village.

Things started moving swiftly after that. Soltz also recruited big names like Wesley Clark and Bob Kerrey to sit on his board and had Bill Clinton headline a fund-raiser. In the past five months, Soltz says, he scooped up about $2 million in donations from longtime Dems like Tony Coelho, Al Gore’s former campaign chairman; Chris Heinz, Kerry’s stepson; and Republicans like Edward Vick, ex-chairman of Young & Rubicam. He then used the money to produce aggressive, Republican-style attack ads.

“You have to get them in their own backyards and on their own issues,” says Soltz, who was trained as a military logician. “You’ll find a lot of Americans against the war, but not many Americans are against the troops.” He also had to compete against Vets for Freedom, a group with links to the same GOP consultants who floated the Swifties. Soltz says he made it a priority to strike first. In August, he spent a meager $14,000 (some of it on his credit card) to produce a controversial spot against Senator George Allen in Virginia. It featured a vet of the Iraq war unloading an AK-47 into outdated body armor on a firing range. Then the vet blames Allen for not voting to buy modern equipment. Cable news and the blogs went wild. So did the Vets for Freedom, who “strongly denounced” Soltz’s “deceitful” commercial. But with his ads running, Soltz was able to solicit more donations, which paid for body-armor ads in other tight Senate races, subbing in the names of other Republicans in tight Senate races: Rick Santorum, Conrad Burns, Jim Talent, and Jon Kyl. Then Soltz created spots featuring vets in wheelchairs and with amputated arms; he says he spent $2 million overall. “We were on offense, and they were on defense the whole time,” Soltz says. “It was awesome.” And, of course, Allen, Santorum, Burns, and Talent all lost.

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