President assails ad that attacks opponent's war record

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

WASHINGTON -- President Bush on Monday criticized a commercial that accused John Kerry of inflating his own Vietnam War record, more than a week after the ad stopped running, and said broadcast attacks by outside groups have no place in the race for the White House.

"I think they're bad for the system," added Bush, who had ignored calls to condemn the ad while it was on the air.

Democrats criticized the president's remarks at the same time they worked to limit the political damage from the ad which they denounce as a smear sanctioned by Bush and his high command.

"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 in a statement. "We need a president with the strength and integrity to say when something is wrong."

"Too little, too late," said party chairman Terry McAuliffe.

Campaign surrogates worked throughout the day to rebut the claims made by Kerry's detractors.

"The fourth Purple Heart could have been an AK-47 through his heart," said Rich Baker, who served on a swift boat in Vietnam at the same time as Kerry. He was referring to weekend comments by former Republican Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas -- grievously wounded in World War II -- that Kerry had won three Purple Hearts "and never bled that I know of."

Other swift boat veterans came forward over the weekend to verify the events that Kerry's detractors have challenged.

The controversy over the ad aired by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth has roiled the race for the White House during what is customarily a quiet summer interlude between political conventions.

While attacking the ad, Democrats have also said privately that Kerry and his campaign were slow to recognize the potential danger in the attack. The four-term Massachusetts senator, who came home from Vietnam with five medals, has made his wartime service a cornerstone of his challenge to the president.

Sean McCabe, a spokesman for the veterans' group, said the ad that questioned Kerry's record ran in three states for a week and stopped on Aug. 12. The organization intends to begin airing a second commercial on Tuesday in three other states. That spot intersperses clips of a youthful Kerry talking about war atrocities during an appearance before Congress in 1971 with images of members of the swift boat group condemning his testimony.

Asked about the issue, Bush said, "I think Sen. Kerry served admirably and he ought to be proud of his record. But the question is who is 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?"

Bush criticized the groups' first commercial and all other outside group attack ads -- many of which have targeted his own re-election.

"That means that ad, every other ad," he said. "I can't be more plain about it. And I wish -- I hope my opponent joins me in saying -- condemning these activities of the 527s. ... I think they're bad for the system. That's why I signed the bill, McCain-Feingold."

Bush's comment about 527s was a reference to independent groups that raise money in unlimited amounts. The McCain-Feingold bill, a campaign finance overhaul bill which Bush reluctantly signed earlier in his term, banned the political parties from raising such funds.

While Kerry and Democrats have demanded that Bush condemn the attack on his war record, the president has been targeted by an estimated $60 million in commercials by outside groups since the campaign began.

Kerry has declined to call for an end to those ads, which helped him at a time when he did not have the funds to compete with the Bush campaign's advertising budget.

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