President Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) joined forces yesterday to seek legal action to reduce the influence of "527" political organizations, but the two remained in disagreement over whether Bush should condemn a television ad by the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacking John F. Kerry's Vietnam service.
Bush called McCain en route to a campaign event in New Mexico to say his campaign would go to federal court to force the Federal Election Commission to prevent the independent groups -- named for the section of the tax code that governs their activities -- from raising and spending money in unlimited amounts.
McCain said he secured Bush's commitment to support legislation to regulate the groups. The organizations have used a loophole in the new campaign finance law -- of which McCain was one of the two principal architects -- to become significant and controversial actors in the campaign on behalf of both the president and the senator from Massachusetts.
Separately, Kerry agreed to take off the air a commercial using footage from a debate during the 2000 GOP primaries in which McCain directly criticized Bush for allowing supporters of his to question McCain's commitment to veterans. McCain had asked Kerry to stop running the ad.
In an interview with Washington Post editors and reporters, McCain said that he is grateful for Kerry's action and that he still hopes Bush will condemn the Swift boat veterans' ad attacking Kerry's service. McCain added that he plans to raise the issue when he campaigns with Bush next week.
But McCain, who has tried to put behind him bitterness over his defeat at Bush's hands in 2000 while becoming one of the president's most significant allies this year, also said he saw Bush's willingness to go to court to rein in the groups as more significant than not singling out the ad for criticism.
"I would like for him to specifically condemn that ad," McCain said. "But the most important thing to me is his commitment to bring them all under control, and that way we can do that. I can't dictate the president's response. I can only dictate my view, and my view is the ads are wrong and they should be taken down."
Later, asked why he is not willing to use his leverage with the Bush campaign to force a condemnation of the anti-Kerry ad, McCain said, "I'm just not sure that in the grand scheme of things that should determine whether I support the president's reelection or not. If I threatened him with some kind of retaliation, that obviously would have some impact on his reelectability."
McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam, was among the first to condemn the veterans group for challenging Kerry's combat record and spoke out against the ad throughout his 90-minute luncheon interview. But he also said Kerry had invited scrutiny of his record by putting so much emphasis on Vietnam at the Democratic National Convention in Boston last month.
"His critics are saying, 'Look, you made it fair game,' " McCain said. "I mean, that's very legitimate, and I think there's a risk that he took when he made it such a centerpiece. He may be paying a very heavy price."
McCain said that he urged Kerry sometime ago not to talk about Vietnam during his campaign. "I did advise John. I said, 'Look, you shouldn't talk about Vietnam because everybody else will. Let everybody else do it.' His advisers figured that was probably not enough, that he had to emphasize that in his campaign. In my campaign, as you know, I didn't talk about it because I didn't need to."
McCain also said he drew a distinction between the first anti-Kerry ad by the veterans group, which focused on Kerry's Vietnam service, and a second ad now airing that criticizes Kerry for his leadership in the antiwar movement after he returned from Vietnam. McCain condemned the first ad but not the second.
Speaking with emotion, McCain said he is pained that the attacks on Kerry's Vietnam record are "ripping up all the old wounds" from three decades ago that he said he worked for years to heal. He said neither Kerry nor Bush should have their service records challenged.
"I believe President Bush served honorably in the National Guard. I believe Senator Kerry served honorably," he said. "Let's worry about the war that's going on in Iraq. Probably some American is dying today in Iraq. I'd like us to focus our attention on the war at hand and how we can win it, rather than revisiting the one that was over 30 years ago."