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Observers See Eerie Parallels in Attacks on Kerry, McCain
Published on Tuesday, August 24, 2004 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Observers See Eerie Parallels in Attacks on Kerry, McCain
As in 2000 campaign, Bush attempts to distance himself from hits against rival
by Zachary Coile, Marc Sandalow
 

WASHINGTON -- Four years ago, as George Bush struggled in the polls, supporters of his bid for the Republican presidential nomination unleashed a ferocious attack on rival John McCain, questioning his commitment to veterans and his fitness to serve.

After the charges took root, Bush distanced himself from the veterans group that made the attacks, called the Arizona senator's service "noble'' and cruised to a nomination-saving victory in the South Carolina primary.

Monday, in a series of events that some observers say are eerily familiar, Bush distanced himself from a veterans group running fierce attacks on John Kerry's military record and called his rival's service in Vietnam "admirable. '' Rather than focus on the Democratic nominee's Vietnam record, a matter that has engulfed the presidential contest for the past week, Bush said "we ought to be debating who (is) best to be leading this country in the war against terror.''

Bush passed up an opportunity to denounce the content of the group's television commercial, in which veterans accuse Kerry of lying in order to win combat medals. In a carefully worded statement, Bush called on all independent groups -- those supporting him and those supporting Kerry -- to pull their television commercials relating to the 2004 presidential campaign off the air, a request that strategists on both sides appeared to not take seriously.

Bush's comments from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, were his most extensive yet on Kerry's military record. They seemed to fit a pattern that dates back to Bush's early run for office as well as campaigns run by Karl Rove, his chief political adviser.

"It's amazing how similar this type of attack is to the pattern of attacks I have seen over two decades -- in some cases involving Bush's campaigns, in other cases they involved campaigns in which Karl Rove was a participant,'' said Wayne Slater, senior political writer at the Dallas Morning News, who has covered Bush since his early days in Texas politics and is author of the book "Bush's Brain,'' about Rove.

"In every case, the approach is the same: You have a surrogate group of allies, independent of the Bush campaign, raising questions not about the opponent's weakness but directly about the opponent's strength,'' Slater said. "In every case, it works."

In 1994, when Bush ran against Democratic Gov. Ann Richards in Texas, a whisper campaign began in East Texas that Richards had appointed gays and lesbians to state positions, which was true. The issue got little notice until Bush's East Texas campaign chairman accused the governor of naming "avowed and activist homosexuals" to high offices.

Bush tried to distance himself from the remarks, but the story garnered major media attention and turned one of Richards' greatest strengths -- the inclusiveness of her administration -- into a political liability, particularly in socially conservative East Texas.

In the 2000 South Carolina Republican primary, Bush attended a rally during which the chairman of a Vietnam and Gulf War veterans group accused McCain, a prisoner of war for six years, of betraying veterans on health issues such as Agent Orange and Gulf War syndrome.

"I don't know if you can understand this, George, but that really hurts. You should be ashamed," McCain told Bush at a televised debate.

Bush replied: "I believe you served our country nobly. I've said it over and over again. That man wasn't speaking for me."

Slater said in each case Bush "was able to basically take the high road and give the same answer: 'I'm not associated with these attacks, and I don't condone these attacks. I'm engaged in a high-road campaign,' while at the same time, his allies are basically doing the dirty work."

Even many Republicans acknowledge the hardball tactic but say there is nothing different about Bush's responsibility for the ads by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and Kerry's responsibility for hard-hitting anti-Bush ads produced by left-leaning groups such as the Media Fund and Move-On.org.

"This is a political tactic that too many campaigns in both parties use, '' said Dan Schnur, a California Republican strategist who worked on McCain's 2000 campaign.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said that Bush has been on the receiving end of $63 million worth of negative advertising by such groups, which are known as 527s for their title in the tax code that allows them to collect unregulated money for use in political ads so long as there is no coordination with political parties or presidential campaigns.

"I don't think we ought to have 527s,'' Bush said Monday. "I can't be more plain about it, and I wish -- I hope -- my opponent joins me in ... condemning these activities of the 527s. It's -- I think they're bad for the system.''

The effect of the latest anti-Kerry ads, which have run in only three states, remains unclear. Opinion polls show Kerry's small lead over Bush has slipped slightly in the weeks since the Democratic convention. Other polls show that Kerry's support among veterans has dropped more markedly.

Though the Bush campaign has denied any direct connection, some of Bush's donors and allies have been heavily involved in Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, a friend of Rove who donated $46,000 to Bush's campaigns for governor, is the group's largest contributor, giving $200,000. Public relations executive Merrie Spaeth, who has helped coordinate the swift boat group's efforts, has ties to Bush and served as spokeswoman in 2000 for a group that ran $2 million in TV ads attacking McCain's environmental record. That group, Republicans for Clean Air, was also funded by a major Bush donor, Texas businessman Sam Wyly.

Similar connections can be found between some of the anti-Bush organizations and the Kerry campaign. Jim Jordan, who was Kerry's campaign manager until last fall, is involved in both the Media Fund, which has produced at least 17 anti-Bush ads, and America Coming Together, an independent grassroots organization. Billionaire financier George Soros, a Kerry donor, has pledged $5 million to MoveOn.org to defeat Bush.

Schnur said there was an "absolute moral equivalency'' between the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads and ads produced by the Democratic groups.

"Anyone who lashes out on the swift boat ads without calling MoveOn and the other groups into account is the worst kind of hypocrite,'' Schnur said.

The Kerry campaign, like McCain four years ago, accused Bush of hiding behind a group of attack-dog surrogates.

"The moment of truth came and went, and the president still couldn't bring himself to do the right thing,'' said Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards. "We need a president with the strength and integrity to say when something is wrong. Instead of hiding behind a front group, George Bush needs to take responsibility and demand that the ad come off the air.''

The Kerry campaign produced three more veterans Monday who had served with Kerry, each of whom supported his version of events along the rivers of the Mekong Delta 35 years ago and disputed the charges made in the television commercials.

"None of you would have wanted to be up those rivers four minutes ... let alone four months,'' said Navy Lt. Rich Baker, who served with Kerry in 1969 and bristled at the notion that Kerry had collected his three Purple Hearts, Bronze Star and Silver Star in order to win early release from Vietnam or to advance his political career.

"John Kerry is lucky to be alive today. The fourth Purple Heart could have been an AK47 through the heart,'' Baker said.

Swift Boat Veterans for Truth issued a statement after the president's comments that showed no willingness to disarm.

"We have our own message and our combat experience that occurred right alongside of John Kerry earned us the right to be heard in the public debate, '' the statement said. "It was John Kerry who decided to make his military service the centerpiece of his presidential campaign and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth will continue to take its message directly to the American people.''

Meanwhile, MoveOn.org will host a star-studded gala tonight in New York to kick off a drive billed as "10 Weeks: Don't Get Mad, Get Even!'' which will air a dozen television commercials featuring high-profile directors and actors, including Matt Damon, Rob Reiner, Woody Harrelson, Kevin Bacon and Al Franken.

© Copyright 2004 San Francisco Chronicle

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