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Bush Urges Muting of Ads

The president calls for independent groups to end spots, but does not specifically denounce one accusing Kerry of lying about war record.

August 24, 2004|Edwin Chen and Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writers

CRAWFORD, Texas — President Bush on Monday criticized the broadcast of a political advertisement that accused Sen. John F. Kerry of lying about his military record in Vietnam, as he called for independent groups to stop "all the stuff" aimed at influencing the November election.

But Bush did not address the charges that have turned the presidential campaign into a series of daily skirmishes over Kerry's military service and his subsequent protests against the Vietnam War. And after Bush's comments, a White House spokesman said the president had not intended to specifically denounce the anti-Kerry ad.

Allies of the Democratic candidate said Bush's remarks -- coming more than a week after the ad stopped running -- were too little and too late.

The president was asked about the ad, sponsored by a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, as he met with reporters at his ranch near Crawford. "I think we ought to be debating who best to be leading this country in the war against terror," he said.

Pressed on the subject, Bush called for an end to ads paid for by independent organizations, such as the Swift boat group, and said "all of them" should stop running. "That means that ad, every other ad," he said.

His comments marked the first time he or his aides had referred more than generically to the Swift boat commercial.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said later that despite the president's mention of the Swift boat ad, he had not meant to spotlight it.

Bush and his aides, when asked previously about the ad, had skirted a direct mention of the group while broadly assailing negative commercials by organizations unaffiliated with either presidential campaign or major political party. The president's aides have stressed that most of the advertising has been financed by pro-Democratic groups and has targeted the president for attacks.

A top Bush official, who asked not to be named, said the president's comments Monday "were precisely" along those lines.

Bush's remarks came as the Swift boat group prepared to broadcast a second ad today, criticizing Kerry's protests against the Vietnam War after he returned home from his decorated service.

Also Monday, the Kerry campaign officially filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging that the veterans group -- some of whose members have political ties to the president, his family and political advisors -- was illegally coordinating its activities with the White House.

The Bush campaign has rejected the allegations, as has the Swift boat group. "We have our own message," said retired Rear Adm. Roy F. Hoffmann, the group's founder. " ... Our organization has never coordinated its efforts with any party or any other organization."

Kerry, who was home in Boston on Monday, had no public reaction to Bush's remarks. But allies, including his running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, were quick to reject Bush's statement.

"Instead of hiding behind a front group, George Bush needs to take responsibility and demand that the ad come off the air," Edwards said.

The back and forth kept Vietnam and Kerry's actions more than 30 years ago at the center of the campaign for yet another day, to uncertain effect. Republicans professed delight while Democrats expressed frustration; more neutral analysts questioned whether many voters would be swayed by the dispute.

"I think most voters who are in favor of Kerry see this as a malicious attack, and voters in favor of Bush view this as Kerry lacking credibility," said Rick Farmer, a political scientist at the University of Akron in Ohio, a major battleground state. "I'm not sure that many of the undecided voters care that much about John Kerry's record in Vietnam."

Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political scientist, agreed. "Truth is in the eyes and ears of the beholder,'" she said. "In large part, this is simply reinforcing and underscoring people's initial beliefs."

Still, the Swift boat group has managed to dominate the campaign for several days on a relative shoestring. The group spent only about $450,000 to air its first commercial in a handful of small television markets in Ohio, Wisconsin and West Virginia. Its second ad, which the group unveiled to the media late last week, is to run in Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Nevada.

But the ads have reverberated nationwide, thanks to extensive cable TV coverage and the megaphone of talk radio; a study last week by the National Annenberg Election Survey found that nearly 6 in 10 of those surveyed across the country had seen or heard about the first ad.

The controversy over Kerry's service has taken a toll, Democrats acknowledge.

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