BUSH
Pablo Martinez Monsivais  /  AP
Bush salutes the audience at Ricketts Park in Farmington, N.M.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 8/26/2004 3:40:49 PM ET 2004-08-26T19:40:49

As President Bush attempted to pull Sen. John McCain into some sort of undefined “court action” against “shadowy” political groups on Thursday, he avoided a key point: McCain was a principal sponsor of campaign reform legislation that did not rein in these groups and Bush signed the law.

Bush said he wanted to work with McCain to go to court against political ads by the groups, known as 527s under an IRS code, the White House said Thursday. The remarks came amid growing pressure on the president to denounce attacks on John Kerry’s war record made by one such 527 group known as the “Swift Boat Veterans for the Truth.”

“We want to pursue court action,” Bush spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to New Mexico. “The president said if the court action doesn’t work, that he would be willing to pursue legislative action with Sen. McCain on that.”

McClellan did not say when any of those steps would be taken. Election Day is Nov. 2.

Dominating the campaign
The debate over Kerry’s service in Vietnam has dominated the presidential race in recent weeks after the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth aired ads questioning the Democratic nominee’s decorated record.

McCain, R-Ariz., has called on Bush to condemn the anti-Kerry ads, even as the war hero popular with many independent voters is actively supporting Bush’s re-election. The senator welcomed Bush’s gesture.

“I’m very appreciative of the president’s effort to do that,” McCain said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I want to emphasize if I could that we’re not saying that 527s should be abolished. We’re just saying they should live under the same campaign finance restrictions (as hard money groups) because they are engaged in partisan activity.”

McCain added: “I’ve said before I would like for the president to specifically condemn that ad, but the president has said John Kerry served honorably and also the president is now committed to acting to try to bring 527s into regulations that are appropriate.”

What went unsaid is that McCain was a key sponsor of 2002 legislation known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Finance Act that Bush signed, calling it “a far from perfect law,” but noting that it would “prevent unions and corporations from making unregulated, ‘soft’ money contributions.”  In fact, while BCRA ended the old practice of unions and individual donors writing unlimited checks to the national party committees, it did not impose caps on what such donors could give to ostensibly independent 527 groups such as the Media Fund, which has run a series of ads attacking President Bush.

Analysts say that during haggling over the reform bill, Republicans, eager for a doubling of contribution-limits on individual donors who have traditionally given more to them than to Democrats, overlooked the potential of 527s.


On Thursday, Bush called McCain from Air Force One and the two had a brief discussion about the matter, McClellan said.

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As links to his own campaign by some involved with the Swift Boat group have cropped up, Bush has criticized all outside group attack ads, including the Swift Boat Veterans group’s first commercial. He has said he wants the ads to stop, but has not explicitly condemned the charges made in the Swift Boat ad, which the Kerry campaign has called upon him to do.

Video: Cleland protests anti-Kerry ads Responding to the White House statement, Kerry spokesman Phil Singer said, “This isn’t an issue about 527 ads or campaign finance: It’s a question of whether the commander in chief will denounce a group whose claims have been discredited by eyewitness accounts, official naval records and, in some cases, their own words.”

McClellan said the goal is “to shut down all of this activity by these shadowy groups.”

But the only complaint the Bush campaign and the GOP have filed with the Federal Election Commission accused the Kerry campaign of illegally coordinating millions of dollars worth of anti-Bush ads with Democratic-leaning soft-money groups, Bush-Cheney spokesman Scott Stanzel said.

It was the FEC’s May 13 decision not to act on the complaint that allows the Bush campaign to turn to legal action, McClellan said.

“The FEC had an opportunity to act,” McClellan said. “They did not act so that allows those who filed those complaints to pursue action against the FEC.”

Kerry campaign complains too
The Kerry campaign filed its own complaint last week with the FEC, alleging that Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was illegally coordinating its efforts with the Bush-Cheney campaign.

All sides deny the allegations, and neither campaign has produced proof of coordination on the part of its rival. But an election lawyer for Bush who also has been advising the veterans group resigned Wednesday from Bush’s campaign. And Benjamin Ginsberg’s acknowledgment Tuesday evening that he was providing legal advice to the Swift Boat veterans marked the second time in days that an individual associated with the Bush-Cheney campaign had been connected to the group, which Kerry accuses of being a front for the Republican incumbent’s re-election effort.

Mike Russell, a spokesman for the Swift Boat group, said Thursday that “we’re going to continue doing what we’re doing because this group is made up of more than 250 veterans who feel it is their obligation to tell the truth about John Kerry’s military service.”


“We’re obviously going to abide by the spirit and letter of the law but as it sits right now 527s are free to operate and we’re going to continue to do so,” he said.

In a separate but related matter, McCain said he wanted Kerry to stop using him in advertising that denounces the anti-Kerry swift boat group. “I very much do not want them to use clips from my primary campaign against the president,” said the Republican, who lost to Bush in 2000 and is joining the president on the campaign trail this week. The Kerry campaign pulled those ads on Thursday.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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