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Kerry camp challenges Bush to debates

Democratic campaign reports record fund raising

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Stay with CNN for updates and analysis of developments including the Kerry campaign's debate challenge to Bush, and the Republican National Committee's complaints about political groups' anti-Bush ads.
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• The Candidates: Bush | Kerry
John F. Kerry
George W. Bush
America Votes 2004

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- -- Saying it's time to "raise the level of dialogue," Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign called on President Bush's re-election campaign Thursday to agree to six debates in key battleground states.

"Democrats in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Washington, Ohio, Missouri and Florida plan to hold press conferences over the next several days to highlight the importance of a substantive discussion on issues affecting all Americans -- national security, homeland security and veterans' issues; education; environment and energy policies; the economy; health care; and equal opportunity for all," said campaign chair Jeanne Shaheen in a written statement.

Last month, Kerry called for issue-oriented debates, but the Bush campaign "has not responded," the Kerry campaign statement said.

Bush campaign spokesman Taylor Griffin told CNN Thursday, "The Bush-Cheney campaign looks for a vigorous debate at the appropriate time. But John Kerry should finish the debate with himself first -- being on both sides of each issue."

Kerry has repeatedly rejected charges of changing his mind on issues.

Griffin added, "It's interesting to note that John Kerry refused to debate John Edwards one-on-one during the Democratic primaries and now he's the big proponent of debates."

When Edwards challenged Kerry to one-on-one debates, there were other Democratic contenders for the presidential nomination -- though none likely to win. Kerry agreed to take part in debates but said the other contenders should be welcome as well.

Edwards is now a strong backer of Kerry's campaign. Recent polls showed a slew of anti-Kerry attacks and ads by the Bush-Cheney campaign had succeeded at knocking down Kerry's popularity, and the senator from Massachusetts is trailing Bush.

Both Kerry and Bush have released negative ads slamming each other while at the same time saying they want to focus on the issues.

Kerry stayed off the campaign trail Thursday, recovering at his home in Boston, Massachusetts, from shoulder surgery.(Full story) Bush rallied the party faithful at a fund-raising dinner in Washington on Thursday night.

GOP challenges advocacy groups

Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission accusing more than two dozen liberal political groups working to defeat Bush of taking part in part of an "unprecedented criminal enterprise" to circumvent federal campaign laws and pour illegal soft money contributions into the 2004 race. (Full story)

The Kerry campaign is also named in the complaint.

Kerry campaign senior adviser Michael Meehan dismissed the complaint.

"Bush and the Republicans have taken March Madness and April Foolishness to new levels," he said in a written statement. "This frivolous complaint is not worth the paper it is written on.

Thursday, the Kerry campaign reported new fund-raising figures, breaking a previous Democratic record.

The campaign reeled in more than $40 million in the first quarter of 2004 and $65 million since the beginning of the primary season.

The previous record for total money raised through the primary season -- ending with the nominating convention -- was $34 million, which then-Vice President Al Gore raised during the 2000 race, a campaign official said.

The Kerry campaign said its Web site has also raised unprecedented amounts, pulling in $20 million across 20 days in March, and a total of $26 million across three months, the campaign said.

As strong as Kerry's fund-raising has been, his bank account is still short of President Bush's. The Bush-Cheney Campaign says their war chest has reached above $170 million, with millions raised in single days as Bush traveled to attend fund-raising events in recent months.

CNN's Kelly Wallace and Justin Dial contributed to this report.

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