Bush Urges Muting of Ads

Times Staff Writers

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.

“I think [Kerry aides] are sort of getting worried for the first time in a long time,” said a Democratic operative who works with the campaign and did not want to be identified sharing his concerns. “They sort of feel like we’re getting walked all over. The other side is just setting the agenda consistently. It has not been a great August.”

The first commercial alleged that Kerry, a Navy lieutenant who was awarded Silver and Bronze Stars for valor and three Purple Hearts for wounds he suffered, did not deserve most of the medals and had lied about his actions in combat.

Military documentation that has been made public generally supports Kerry’s accounts of his action, though some details remain in dispute. His campaign has produced a series of witnesses and others who served with Kerry -- including a handful who came forward Monday -- to attest to his bravery under fire.

Kerry initially ignored the first ad while his campaign issued statements condemning the allegations. It was a calculated response that followed internal debate over whether a more forceful approach would backfire by drawing heightened attention to the charges.

However, after hearing from fellow veterans -- including several of his crewmates on the Swift boat he commanded -- Kerry decided to speak out. On Friday, the Massachusetts senator accused the Swift boat group of doing Bush’s “dirty work,” and challenged the president to denounce the ads.

Bush did so in broad terms Monday.

Asked if he felt the attacks were unpatriotic and un-American during wartime, Bush said, “Yes,” but added, “We ought to be looking forward, not backward.”

Asked why he would not denounce the charges that his supporters leveled against Kerry, Bush replied, “I’m denouncing all the stuff being on TV of the 527s,” referring to the tax code section that regulates the independent political committees that have spent millions on ads in this year’s campaign. The bulk of the spending has been by pro-Democratic groups, but none of the ads have gained as much attention as the Swift boat commercials.

“I don’t think we ought to have 527s,” Bush said, discouraging his fellow Republicans from contributing to such organizations. “I think they’re bad for the system.”

The president’s comment marked a small shift. During an Aug. 12 interview with CNN’s Larry King, Bush passed up several opportunities to condemn the Swift boat spot.

“I haven’t seen the ad,” the president said at the time, then went on to condemn the expenditures of independent groups attacking both candidates. He also praised Kerry’s Vietnam service, which he did again Monday.

“I think Sen. Kerry served admirably and ... he ought to be proud of his record,” Bush told reporters in Texas. “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?”

Kerry left it to others Monday to respond.

His campaign organized another in a series of conference calls with fellow veterans, who vouched for Kerry’s credibility and described his actions on patrol in Vietnam.

“I found John Kerry to be an honorable, brave individual,” said Rich McCann of Chagrin Falls, Ohio. “And I said it in 1969, and I’ll say it again today: If I had to go up a river and come under fire, I’d want John Kerry to watch my back.”

Asked about remarks Sunday by former Senate Republican Majority Leader Bob Dole that belittled Kerry’s three Purple Heart medals, veteran Rich Baker of Pittsburgh said the Kansas Republican had no business “commenting on the severity of the Purple Hearts.”

“John Kerry is lucky to be alive today,” Baker said. “The fourth Purple Heart could have been an AK-47 through his heart.”

Appearing Monday on CNN, Dole said he and Kerry had spoken earlier on the telephone. “He knows it’s hardball, but he said he was disappointed. And I said: ‘John, I didn’t mean to offend you. I said lot of nice things about you in the primary.’ ”

But Bush is “my guy,” Dole said he told Kerry. " ... I want him to get off Bush’s back and have his people get off Bush’s back.” Dole said he ended the conversation by wishing Kerry “good luck up to a point.”

Chen reported from Crawford and Barabak from San Francisco. Times staff writers Nick Anderson, Michael Finnegan, Matea Gold and Maria L. La Ganga and researcher Susannah Rosenblatt contributed to this report.