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Inside Politics

Bush campaign denies 'smear tactics'

Kerry campaign compares swift boat ad to 2000 attack on McCain

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John Kerry spends most of the week on the offensive.

CNN's Jill Dougherty reports on voter reaction to attacks on candidates' war records.
• The Candidates: Bush | Kerry
George W. Bush
John F. Kerry
John Edwards

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush campaign rejected accusations Sunday from Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign that it was using "tired, old smear tactics" by letting backers attack Kerry's Vietnam War record through an independent group.

"The fact is this campaign is unprecedented in our praise of our opponent's service during Vietnam," Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

The remark came two days after the Kerry campaign filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission arguing that a group calling itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was illegally coordinating with President's Bush re-election campaign -- a charge the Bush campaign denies. (Full story)

The group, which has run ads attacking Kerry's war record and his comments upon his return from the war, was established with large donations from Republicans from Bush's home state of Texas.

Such so-called 527 groups are barred from coordinating efforts with an election campaign. The term refers to Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code, which makes such organizations tax exempt and allows them to accept unlimited "soft money" donations.

A volunteer adviser on veterans issues quit the Bush campaign Saturday after he appeared in the group's latest ad. The Bush campaign said it did not know retired Air Force Col. Ken Cordier had taken part in the ad. (Full story)

Kerry's campaign compared the assault to tactics used against Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Bush's rival for the Republican nomination in 2000.

In a news release, the Kerry campaign claimed the Bush-Cheney campaign was "more intent on using its tired, old smear tactics than addressing the concerns of the American people."

An ad on the Kerry campaign Web site features an exchange between McCain and Bush during a CNN-sponsored debate before the 2000 South Carolina primary.

In it, McCain said a spokesman for a veterans' group, at a Bush-sponsored event, accused McCain of abandoning fellow veterans.

McCain, who as a Navy pilot was shot down during the Vietnam War and spent 5.5 years as a prisoner of war, complained in the debate that Bush had not apologized, and called the move "shameful."

Mehlman also was asked whether comments made Friday by White House spokesman Scott McClellan and campaign chairman Marc Racicot were reminiscent of comments questioning McCain's temperament four years ago.

McClellan said Kerry was "losing his cool," and Racicot said the Kerry campaign had "come completely unhinged."

Mehlman denied any pattern of campaign behavior and argued that the Kerry campaign was trying to avoid a focus on issues.

"We think the important issue in this campaign is Senator Kerry's judgment as United States senator over the past 20 years. You won't hear a lot about that from the Kerry campaign," he said.

McCain, who co-sponsored the 2002 campaign finance act that banned parties from raising unlimited soft money donations, has endorsed Bush's re-election bid and called for an end to 527 political ads.

But he also has called the swift boat group's attacks on Kerry "dishonest and dishonorable" and urged Bush to specifically repudiate the ads.

Kerry's campaign plans to release its own ad Monday that accuses the Bush campaign of attacking Kerry through a "front group." It calls on Bush to "denounce the smear" and "get back to the issues."

Mehlman released a letter, to be sent to television stations Monday, calling on them to "set the record straight on the Kerry campaign's ad falsely accusing Bush-Cheney '04 of violating campaign finance laws." The letter warns that the ad contains a "false and libelous charge."

Kerry's campaign sent a similar letter earlier this month to television stations that broadcast one of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads, and Kerry campaign senior adviser Tad Devine said the Democratic campaign stood by its latest ad.

"We want a debate and a campaign about the issues," Devine said on "Meet the Press." "But, unfortunately, the Bush campaign is doing precisely what they did before. ... A front group which does their dirty work for them. It's incredible."

Bush spokesmen have said the president wants an end to all independent attack ads, saying he has been the target of more than $60 million in negative ads.

But they have not singled out the Swift Boat Veterans' ad, as Kerry and McCain have urged.

Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, repeated that call Sunday. He said the ads are "directly connected" to Bush's supporters.

Recent published reports and the advocacy group Texans for Public Justice, which describes itself on its Web site as "a nonpartisan, nonprofit policy and research organization which tracks the influence of money and corporate power in Texas politics," bolster that charge.

According to a report Friday in The New York Times and to Texans for Public Justice, Texas homebuilder Bob Perry is the principal contributor to the swift boat group, having donated $200,000. He has also donated tens of thousands of dollars to Bush's campaigns going back to when the president was running for governor of Texas.

Perry is also a longtime associate of Bush's top adviser, Karl Rove.

Speaking on CNN's "Inside Politics," Bush campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Millerwise cited the Kerry campaign's references to questions over Bush's Vietnam-era service in the Texas Air National Guard.

"There's only one campaign that's questioned the candidate's military service, and that is John Kerry and his campaign," she said.

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