Even as three weeks of intense media interest appeared to be waning Thursday, the campaigns of President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry fired their latest salvos over Kerry’s Vietnam War service, the television advertisement that questioned it and the larger issue of controlling independent campaign ads.
Bush’s campaign announced that it was prepared to go to court, along with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), in an attempt to force federal elections officials to rein in groups that have slammed Bush and challenged Kerry’s medals and antiwar activity.
Such vitriolic television ads can only be curtailed by assuring that outside organizations follow the same contribution and reporting limits as the candidates, Bush campaign executives said Thursday.
Kerry and his aides renewed their calls on Bush to denounce an ad that said Kerry did not deserve medals he was awarded for bravery and wounds suffered while serving as a Navy lieutenant in Vietnam.
The continued reverberations from the ad by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth came as both camps said they wanted to focus on other matters.
The Bush campaign said it was focused on next week’s Republican National Convention and showcasing the president’s record, particularly on national security and foreign affairs.
Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said the GOP would also emphasize Kerry’s 20-year record in the Senate, since the Democratic presidential nominee barely mentioned it at the party’s convention last month.
“In New York, we won’t spend all our time looking backward. We will talk about the new challenges we face as a nation and new policies to address them,” Gillespie said. “The American people want to know where the candidates stand and how each will lead our country.”
Kerry talked to Minnesota voters Thursday about the 1.4 million Americans who lost healthcare coverage in the last year and pledged to clear the way for importing cheaper drugs from abroad -- part of his campaign’s bid to refocus on domestic issues, where polls show he holds an advantage.
One Kerry campaign operative predicted that the furor over the Vietnam ad was waning, saying, “Two days from now, a lot of these stories are going to start fizzling out.”
But the issue had not been spent Thursday, and it was McCain who remained the focus of much of the back-and-forth.
The Republican senator is coveted by both sides because of his popularity among voters, and because of his credibility on issues pertaining to Vietnam -- where he spent 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war.
Early in the day, the Kerry campaign bowed to a request not to air a television ad that used the Arizona senator to attack Bush.
The Democratic ad was built around news footage from the 2000 GOP presidential primary season in which McCain told Bush that he should be “ashamed” for supporting claims that McCain had abandoned fellow prisoners of war.
Kerry spokesman David Wade said the Democrats would “respect John McCain’s wishes” and not televise the ad, which had been shown on the Internet.
As he flew to New Mexico on Thursday to begin a week of intense campaigning, Bush called McCain from Air Force One and suggested that the two “work together to pursue court action” to shut down all ads by so-called 527 groups, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
Bush campaign officials announced later in the day that such a lawsuit would be used in an effort to force a crackdown by the Federal Election Commission, which failed to act on earlier complaints by Bush and McCain about the 527 groups, which are named after the federal tax code that created them.
The Republican lawsuit will attempt to force federal elections officials to establish rules for controlling fundraising and spending by the groups, and to investigate alleged connections between Kerry’s campaign and liberal independent groups such as MoveOn.org.
Bush campaign Chairman Marc Racicot said the president had not lost his desire to eliminate the groups, but wanted to file suit as a stopgap to “get rid of illegal spending and coordination opportunities [and to] provide the same level playing field to these groups.”
McClellan suggested that all such groups were questionable -- he referred to them as “shadowy” 18 times in brief remarks to reporters aboard Air Force One.
McCain could not be reached for comment but released a statement saying he would work with Bush “both in the courts and through legislation” to curtail the independent groups.
Kerry’s campaign immediately chastised the Bush call for reform, noting that the president had provided lukewarm support to campaign reform, including the McCain-Feingold legislation that set much of the current regulatory framework.
“It’s a little ironic that George Bush is now trying to assume the mantle of a campaign finance reformer given the fact that he worked so hard to block the McCain-Feingold bill when it came up for a vote,” Kerry spokesman Phil Singer said.
An expert on campaign finance law -- who also was general counsel to Bush’s father’s presidential campaign -- said that lawsuits in the heat of the campaign season “almost always” had more to do with politicking than with election law reform.
The expert, Jan Baran, called it “highly unlikely” that either the FEC or the courts would squelch the committees before the Nov. 2 election.
There is not enough time to develop regulations that could control the independent groups or to address the complaint that attempts to tie Kerry’s camp to the 527s, Baran said.
Bush maintained his stance that the entire campaign finance system needed to be reformed and that Kerry’s wartime service was honorable. He again declined to denounce the ad belittling Kerry’s record in Vietnam.
In an interview with USA Today, Bush said Thursday that the 2004 campaign “really doesn’t seem that ugly to me.”
The president, emerging from a weeklong vacation at his Texas ranch, went to New Mexico to begin a campaign sprint to eight states that will end in New York for the Republican convention by Wednesday.
Accompanied by former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Bush promoted his credentials as commander in chief during wartime and said his tax cuts helped overcome the economic dislocations caused by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the corporate scandals that shook consumer confidence.
Still, some of the centrifugal force around Kerry’s war record remained apparent Thursday.
At a campaign forum in Anoka, Minn., a man asked Kerry about accusations by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that he lied about his role in Vietnam War battles in order to get Navy medals.
“All the guys who were who were with me on my boat, all the guys who were with me in the specific action where they could see it and do it, absolutely document what I said,” Kerry responded.
Speaking a day after the Bush campaign’s national counsel resigned because of his role advising the anti-Kerry veterans group, the Massachusetts senator said the public was beginning to see “the lie that’s been put out there and how it’s been put out there.”
The group that Kerry helped lead more than 30 years ago in protesting the Vietnam War joined in saying its reputation had been sullied.
Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which today claims 1,500 members and opposes the war in Iraq, said its assertions about atrocities in Vietnam had never been credibly refuted.
“Just because we bring up unpleasant facts that are based in reality does not mean that we did not support the troops,” the VVAW statement read. “We were, and are, the troops.”
Times staff writers Edwin Chen and Lisa Getter contributed to this report.