- The Washington Times - Friday, August 27, 2004

President Bush yesterday joined forces with Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, to mount legal and legislative challenges to third-party attack ads, including those that question Sen. John Kerry’s Vietnam record.

The move came as new polls by Gallup, the Los Angeles Times and Rasmussen showed Mr. Bush edging ahead of the Massachusetts Democrat in advance of next week’s Republican National Convention. The first two polls attributed the shift to a series of anti-Kerry ads by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

But the president wants to stop the ads, along with other spots by third-party groups, known as 527s because of their tax designation. Yesterday, he telephoned Mr. McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war, from Air Force One and enlisted him in a planned lawsuit to force the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) to quash the ads.

“Since the FEC failed to act, we would now be asking the courts to force the FEC to act to shut down all this activity,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. “There would be a lawsuit.”

“The president said if the court action doesn’t work, then he would be willing to pursue legislative action and work with Senator McCain on that,” Mr. McClellan said.

Mr. McCain issued a statement saying: “I look forward to working with the president, both in the courts and through legislation, to force the Federal Election Commission to regulate 527s.”

Mr. Kerry responded by suspending ads that feature Mr. McCain criticizing Mr. Bush in the 2000 Republican primaries, when the two were rivals. Mr. McCain had been calling on Mr. Kerry to drop the ads for days.

“It’s long past time that George Bush also take John McCain’s advice and do the right thing by putting an end to the smears and lies attacking John Kerry’s military service,” said Kerry spokesman David Wade.

Both Mr. McCain and the Bush campaign already had filed complaints with the FEC in an effort to curb political advertising by 527s, which sprung up through a loophole in the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law, which Mr. Bush signed in 2002.

Failure by the FEC to act on such complaints within 120 days entitles the complainants to sue the commission.

“They did not act,” Mr. McClellan told reporters on Air Force One. “They failed to pursue that action.”

But FEC spokesman Ian Stirton cautioned that such comments might be premature.

“They don’t know that,” he said. “They don’t know what we’ve done on the complaints.”

He explained that preliminary action on the complaints is confidential, adding that final action rarely occurs within the 120 days because of procedural and regulatory hurdles.

Swift Boat Veterans spokesman Mike Russell said the group has no intention of halting their ads, including a third one released yesterday.

“We’re going to continue to do what we do and operate within the spirit and the letter of the law,” he said. “The reality is the McCain-Feingold legislation created 527s.”

Nonetheless, he said he empathized with Mr. Bush, who has been on the receiving end of the overwhelming majority of 527 attack ads, including many by groups such as MoveOn.org and America Coming Together.

“I empathize with the unfairness of some of the attacks the Bush administration has been forced to endure,” Mr. Russell said. “Personally, if I were the president, I wouldn’t want to be the subject of $60 million in attack ads by liberal groups, many of whom don’t represent citizens at all — they represent a few rich, liberal donors.”

Mr. Russell was less sympathetic toward Mr. McCain.

“With all due respect, Senator McCain wasn’t there with John Kerry,” he said. “The Swift Boat veterans were.”

But Democrats were skeptical of the move.

“They’re not going to be able to go to court and pull down these ads,” said Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe. “They know as well as we do that they’re not going to be able to stop these ads.”

Mr. Russell said if the courts fail to stop the Swift Boat ads, it is unlikely that legislation would do the job.

“The reality is that Congress isn’t going to move so quickly that anybody’s impacted in this [election] cycle,” he said.

It was not clear when a lawsuit might be filed.

“Both the president and Senator McCain will proceed forward with a legal action before the federal district court, seeking appropriate relief,” said Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot. “We are drafting pleadings, and we will be proceeding with that action as we determine the appropriate moment arrives, in terms of our preparation being complete.”

The new Swift Boat ad features Vietnam veteran Steve Gardner.

“I spent more time on John Kerry’s boat than any other crew member,” Mr. Gardner says. “John Kerry hasn’t been honest. He’s been deceitful.

“John Kerry claims that he spent Christmas in 1968 in Cambodia, and that is categorically a lie,” he adds. “Not in December, not in January. We were never in Cambodia on a secret mission, ever.”

Mr. Kerry fired back at a town hall meeting in Minnesota.

“All the guys who were with me on my boat absolutely document what I’ve said,” he said. “You’re now hearing about the lie. I am absolutely telling you the God’s honest truth with regard to what happened over there.”

In New York, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie criticized Mr. Kerry for wanting to have it both ways.

“He cannot say that it is wrong to divide Americans by who served or how, then send his surrogates out to attack service in the National Guard as somehow dishonorable,” Mr. Gillespie said in a keynote address to the Republican National Committee’s annual summer meeting.

In a reference to the Bush campaign adviser who resigned this week, Mr. Gillespie said Mr. Kerry “can’t say that Ben Ginsberg providing legal advice to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth while serving as outside counsel to the Bush-Cheney campaign is evidence of illegal coordination, when Bob Bauer serves as legal counsel to both the Kerry campaign and America Coming Together and Joe Sandler serves as general counsel to the Democratic National Committee and to MoveOn.Org and Moving America Forward all at the same time.”

Ralph Z. Hallow contributed to this report in New York.

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