Tuesday, August 24, 2004

President Bush yesterday denounced TV ads that question Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry’s Vietnam record and called on the senator from Massachusetts to be equally critical of ads financed by Democratic “billionaires writing checks.”

“I’m denouncing all the stuff being on TV of the 527s,” Mr. Bush told reporters at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. “I hope my opponent joins me in condemning these activities of the 527s.”

Mr. Kerry has not taken up Mr. Bush on his offer to call for an end to all ads by 527 groups, named for the section of the tax code that governs them. Mr. Kerry’s office did not return a call for comment yesterday.

The Vietnam ads, from the 527 group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, have been such a thorn in the Kerry campaign that this weekend, it released a second rebuttal ad in which it said Mr. Bush was behind the “smears” in the veterans’ commercials and was perpetuating “lies.”

Kerry campaign advisers said last week that their boss has condemned certain ads that he thought were out of bounds, including a recent one by MoveOn.org that accuses Mr. Bush of shirking duty by not serving in Vietnam.

The president noted that the bulk of all 527 money, about $63 million, has been spent on anti-Bush ads, despite his signing the McCain-Feingold bill on campaign-finance reform in 2002.

“I thought we were going to, once and for all, get rid of a system where people could just pour tons of money in and not be held to account for the advertising,” Mr. Bush said. “For the first six months of this year, 527s were just pouring tons of money, billionaires writing checks.”

It was a veiled reference to liberal financier George Soros, who has bankrolled MoveOn.org, a stridently anti-Bush group known for ads comparing the president to Adolf Hitler.

“And I spoke out against them early,” Mr. Bush added. “I tried to get others to speak out against them, as well.”

Mr. Kerry was in Boston yesterday with no public events scheduled, but his campaign released a statement from running mate John Edwards that Mr. Bush’s response was too late.

“The moment of truth came and went, and the president still couldn’t bring himself to do the right thing,” Mr. Edwards said. The senator from North Carolina had said during the weekend that the Swift Boat Veterans’ campaign “is a moment of truth for President Bush.”

Leaders of the Swift Boat Veterans say they wouldn’t pull the ads, no matter what Mr. Bush says, but Mr. Edwards said yesterday that Mr. Bush bears responsibility for the ads.

“[It is] funded by his own supporters, and casts one of [his] own campaign officials,” Mr. Edwards said.

The Swift Boat Veterans’ first ad this month challenges whether Mr. Kerry earned several of the medals he received in four months of combat: three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star.

The veterans’ second ad, accusing Mr. Kerry of destroying troop morale when he returned from Vietnam to protest the war, begins running today.

The Kerry campaign had pressured Mr. Bush into speaking out against the ads. For more than a week, Democrats and journalists had been calling on him to explicitly denounce the Swift Boat ads. A Democratic ad exhorted: “George Bush, denounce the smear.”

Yesterday was the first time Mr. Bush used the word “denounce” in reference to the ads, although he has been condemning 527 ads in general since the controversy began. By complaining about “billionaires writing checks,” Mr. Bush turned the argument against Mr. Kerry, who has refrained from dismissing an adviser he hired from MoveOn.org, Zach Exley.

The Bush campaign on Saturday dismissed a volunteer, retired Air Force Col. Ken Cordier, who appeared in one of the Swift Boat ads.

“Senator Kerry wants to have it both ways,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. “Why has the Kerry campaign been silent for more than a year, and then actually been fueling some of these very false and negative attacks that have been airing against the president of the United States for the last year?”

Mr. Kerry has filed a challenge with the Federal Election Commission asking it to determine that the Bush campaign illegally coordinated with the Swift Boat group.

The Bush campaign said in a letter to the FEC yesterday that the complaint was “frivolous” and that there is not “even one piece of hard evidence to back up the Kerry campaign’s allegations.”

“The Bush-Cheney campaign flatly denies any coordination with Swiftboat Veterans for Truth,” wrote Thomas J. Josefiak, the campaign’s attorney.

Yesterday, Mr. Bush made clear that he does not agree with ads that question his opponent’s Vietnam record.

“I think Senator Kerry served admirably, and he ought to be proud of his record,” he said. “But the question is, who best to lead the country in the war on terror; who can handle the responsibilities of the commander in chief; who’s got a clear vision of the risks that the country faces.”

He added: “We ought to be looking forward, not backward.”

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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