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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Kerry to File Complaint Tying Bush to Attack Ads

August 21, 2004|Maria L. La Ganga, Matea Gold and Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writers

FORT MYERS, Fla. — The campaign for Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry said Friday it would file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, charging that a Vietnam veterans group had been illegally coordinating its ad campaign about Kerry's military record with President Bush.

But the group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, denied allegations of wrongdoing and unveiled a television ad that it planned to begin airing in three states next week -- claiming that Kerry's antiwar comments in 1971 hurt American soldiers imprisoned in North Vietnam.

The complaint and the ad capped a week in which debate about Kerry's Vietnam-era record of combat and antiwar protest consumed the presidential race, drawing both campaigns into heated rhetoric Friday.

The Kerry camp argued that anti-Kerry veterans and Bush had colluded against Kerry, while surrogates for the president suggested that the Massachusetts senator had "lost his cool" and that his campaign was becoming "unhinged."

The dispute over Kerry's actions in Vietnam and his protest of the war after he returned to the U.S. began Aug. 5, when the anti-Kerry group launched an ad in select states accusing the candidate of lying about his war record for political gain.

After supporters and the candidate's crewmates urged the campaign to rebut the charges more forcefully, Kerry punched back Thursday, accusing the group of doing Bush's "dirty work." On Friday, the campaign continued moving aggressively to halt the assault on his military credentials by questioning the credibility and political ties of the veterans group.

A poll released Friday showed that more than half of the country was aware of the anti-Kerry group's first ad -- largely because of coverage by cable television news shows or talk radio.

Fifty-seven percent of those polled by the National Annenberg Election Survey said they had either seen the ad or heard about it. Respondents overall were evenly split on whether they believed the ad, as were the independent voters who were the focus of both campaigns' efforts.

The FEC complaint, to be filed Monday, includes documentation showing close ties and personal relationships between the Swift boat group and the Republican Party. Many of those involved in the veterans group and its ads have been longtime donors to Republican causes and candidates in Texas, including the president.

Under campaign finance law, an independent 527 group like Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is prohibited from coordinating its strategy or advertising with a presidential campaign.

Kerry aides said they would cite recent newspaper reports that discredited the Swift boat ads and showed connections to the Bush family, the president's chief political aide, Karl Rove, and many high-ranking Texas Republicans.

The complaint will also state that "there is overwhelming evidence" that the Swift boat group "is coordinating its expenditures on advertising and other activities designed to influence the presidential election with the Bush-Cheney campaign," according to the Kerry campaign.

The campaign also distributed as evidence the copy of a political flier picked up by a Kerry volunteer at the Bush-Cheney campaign office in Gainesville, Fla. The flier indicates that a local rally this weekend is being sponsored by the Bush-Cheney campaign and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Steve Schmidt, Bush's campaign spokesman, said in a statement that the allegations were frivolous and that "real coordination is what John Kerry's campaign has been engaged in with the Media Fund, America Coming Together and MoveOn.org."

Schmidt argued that between the Kerry campaign and liberal independent organizations, there was a "revolving door of personnel, coordinated strategies and overlapping fundraising" that constituted "a flagrant disregard of the spirit and letter of the campaign finance reform law."

In Crawford, Texas, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan accused Kerry of losing his cool by criticizing the ads. McClellan said the Bush campaign had not been involved in the anti-Kerry advertising.

"Sen. Kerry, you know, appears to have lost his cool, and now he's just launching into false and baseless attacks against the president," McClellan told reporters. "The Kerry campaign has fueled these very kinds of attacks against the president."

The Swift boat ad, McClellan said, was "another example of the problems with these shadowy groups that are funded by unregulated soft money. And that's why the president has spoken out against [this] kind of advertising."

Kerry spokesman David Wade called his counterpart at the White House a "hired gun" and noted that the president, who served in the Texas Air National Guard during Vietnam, had never fought in battle.

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