CRAWFORD, Texas - President Bush said yesterday that TV ads questioning John Kerry's military service should be stopped, along with those run by other outside groups, but Democrats contended the President should demand that the commercials should be taken off the air.
Mr. Bush for the first time specifically addressed the commercials aired by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which has strong GOP fund-raising ties. The group's ads attack Mr. Kerry's service in Vietnam and his anti-war activities after returning home as a decorated veteran.
The President again said Mr. Kerry served "admirably" in the military and "ought to be proud of his record," but Mr. Bush did not denounce the swift-boat ads for their content. Instead, he said those ads and other activities funded by so-called 527 groups, which have the ability to accept unlimited amounts of money to promote political agendas, should be stopped in the interests of campaign finance reform.
The Bush campaign has contended that it has been targeted by $63 million worth of attack advertising by groups supporting Mr. Kerry. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth
had spent about $452,000 on advertising in Ohio, Wisconsin, and West Virginia through Saturday, according to the political ad-tracking TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG.
Mr. Kerry made no public statements yesterday, but other Democrats criticized the President's remarks as not going far enough to rein in the negative campaigning.
"The moment of truth came and went, and the President still couldn't bring himself to do the right thing," Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards said.
Senator Edwards (D., N.C.) said Mr. Bush failed "to take responsibility and demand that the ad come off the air."
The President's remarks and Kerry's planned criticism of the Bush campaign threaten to extend for several more days a political battle rooted in controversy over a war fought more than three decades ago.
While both campaigns have tried to move forward with discussion of current issues, Mr. Kerry has been forced to try to deflect the negativity of the swift-boat ads. The intense criticism of his military record has come after he promoted that record during the Democratic convention to show that he can be a wartime commander-in-chief.
While Democrats acknowledge that Mr. Kerry's campaign has been dented by the swift-boat attack ads, they believe the campaign can turn those problems around if it can demonstrate a pattern of negative campaigning by Bush forces. That is the focus of the Kerry campaign's latest TV ad, contending Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) dealt with similar "smears" about his war record during the 2000 GOP presidential primary season.
Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, in an indication of its ties to the Republican Party, acknowledged yesterday that a woman who helped set up the group and works for it is an officer of the Majority Leader's Fund, a political action committee affiliated with the former House majority leader, Richard Armey of Texas.
The name of the woman, Susan Arceneaux, is given as the contact person on the post office box that Swift Boat Veterans for Truth lists as its address. She is treasurer of the Majority Leaders Fund. Records show that like Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the group receives significant financing from Bob Perry, a Texan who has long supported Mr. Bush, and his company, as well as Sam and Charles Wyly, prominent Texas Republican donors. Sam Wyly, under the name "Republicans for Clean Air," took out ads in 2000 criticizing the environmental record of Mr. McCain.
Mr. Perry has donated $200,000 to the swift boat group, records show, and Merrie Spaeth, a Republican strategist who has been advising the Swift boat group, was a spokesman for Sam Wyly's advertising campaign in 2000.
The Kerry campaign has maintained in a formal complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission that the Bush campaign has illegal ties to the swift-boat veterans group. The Bush campaign has denied any coordination of activities between itself and the veterans' group, which would be illegal previously and had filed a complaint alleging collusion between the Kerry campaign and personnel affiliated with Democratic-aligned groups. The Kerry campaign also has denied any illegal coordination.
Asked if he was specifically calling for an end to the swift-boat ad, Mr. Bush responded: "All of them. That means that ad, every other ad, absolutely. I don't think we ought to have 527s. I can't be more plain about it."
For weeks, Mr. Bush has said he believed campaign-finance reform legislation he signed into law two years ago would have "gotten rid of" the groups, which are called 527s because they are covered under that section of the federal revenue code. The groups can raise unlimited amounts of money to finance political advocacy advertisements.
The founder of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, retired Adm. Roy Hoffmann, said the group had no ties to the Bush campaign and planned to continue airing its message.