Bush joins McCain fight on attack ads

Kerry kills ad, challenges president to weekly debates

Election 2004


President Bush said yesterday that he would team with Sen. John McCain to force a crackdown on independent groups spending millions of dollars on political attack advertisements, as the debate over a veterans group's attacks on Sen. John Kerry's war record dominated the race for yet another day.

The president made his pledge after McCain renewed calls on him to condemn an advertisement from the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which accuses Kerry of lying about his war record. The president did not disavow the ad, but did say yesterday that he did not believe that Kerry had lied about his service.

In Anoka, Minn., Kerry again addressed the group's claims. "The United States Navy, 35 years ago, when it was fresh, did its own documentation," he said. "Those documents stand, and I'm absolutely telling you the God's honest truth about what took place over there."

Kerry also challenged the president to weekly debates until Election Day.

"America deserves a serious discussion about its future; it does not deserve a campaign of smear and fear," Kerry said.

Suggesting a series of sessions on health care, education, national security and the environment, he added: "Let's meet every week from now until the election and talk about the real issues facing Americans."

Kerry made a similar proposal in March, when he called for monthly debates.

Bush made his overture to McCain, an Arizona Republican, in a telephone call yesterday.

McCain said later that he would work with the president "both in the courts and through legislation" to force the commission to regulate the outside groups, called 527s for the section of the tax code that created them.

The groups are allowed to receive unlimited donations as long as they do not coordinate with federal candidates or parties.

Lawyers for Bush said yesterday that they were filing two lawsuits. One, they said, is intended to expedite their complaint before the Federal Election Commission that Move- on.org, The Media Fund and America Coming Together, liberal groups running ads against the president, were illegally coordinating with Kerry. The other lawsuit, they said, would seek tighter restrictions on the groups' fund-raising.

McCain has argued that the groups should be barred from raising unlimited "soft money" donations because they are essentially working as political committees.

Bush's invitation to work with McCain brought the two men full circle. In their bitter primary battle in 2000, McCain trumpeted his signature proposal to overhaul campaign finance law and ban the national parties from using unlimited donations from corporations, unions and individuals.

When McCain's proposal passed Congress despite the overwhelming opposition of the Republican leadership, Bush signed it, but underscored his lack of enthusiasm by doing it with no ceremony and without McCain or any of the bill's other main sponsors by his side.

Kerry's campaign dismissed Bush's moves yesterday, saying he was trying to divert attention from its charges that the Swift boat group is "a front" for the president. On Wednesday, the Bush campaign's national counsel, Benjamin L. Ginsberg, acknowledged that he had done legal work for the group and resigned.

The Swift boat veterans, whose most serious charges have been contradicted by official records, some of its members' own past statements, and a growing list of eyewitnesses, got most of their initial funding from Texas Republicans supportive of the president.

"This isn't an issue about 527 ads or campaign finance, it's a question of whether the commander in chief will denounce a group whose claims have been discredited," another Kerry spokesman, Phil Singer, said in a statement sent to reporters.

Kerry's campaign, meanwhile, heeded McCain's call to cease using images of McCain chiding Bush in 2000 for comments by a different veterans group that supported Bush.

Some Republican advisers have privately acknowledged that they would just as soon see the issue die down as the president heads into his convention. There were no signs yesterday that it was going to happen.

The Swift boat group released a new Internet advertisement, again calling Kerry "a liar."

And across the country, even some Republicans seemed to want to keep the Swift boat issue alive, with reports of overlap between local Republican committees and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Several county Republican parties from New Hampshire to California were directing visitors to their Web sites to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth site, a fact the Kerry campaign cited as more evidence of collusion.

One Republican connection to the group that had been dismissed surfaced again yesterday. Republicans in Alachua County, Fla., had said that a flier found in their local office listing them as co-sponsors of a rally with the Swift boat group was the work of an unauthorized volunteer and that they knew nothing of it.

But city permits obtained by the Times listed the Alachua County Republican Party executive committee as one of four sponsors for the rally, and one of the checks to pay for the permit was written by a member of the party's executive committee. Additional permits for the rally were taken out by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and two additional anti-Kerry veterans groups, all of which gave their address as the local Republican Party headquarters and their contact name as a member of the party's executive committee.

Travis Horn, chairman of the county Republican Party, first said that the party had been invitees, not sponsors. Asked about the permits, he then said that there had been no "collusion." Dineen Wolfersheim, the name listed as the contact, said she was on the party's executive committee but had taken out the permits as a private citizen and that Lourdes Chu, another member of the executive committee, had likewise paid for the permits as a private citizen.

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