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Angry over on-air remark, adviser threatens a ban

DES MOINES -- John Sasso, a senior adviser to John F. Kerry's presidential campaign, threatened to ban Fox News staff from the candidate's plane Friday night when Fox initially refused to apologize for a talk show host's comment that a new videotape showed Osama bin Laden with a Kerry button.

Kerry advisers quickly backtracked, however, concluding that an escalating conflict with a major cable channel just days before the election would do nothing to help the Democratic nominee. Kerry senior adviser Mike McCurry spoke to Fox executives Friday and yesterday and was told that the Fox News host, Neil Cavuto, may address the remark on Monday's show, officials from Fox and the Kerry campaign said.

The furor was a rare moment of visible frustration inside the Kerry camp: Kicking a major cable outlet off of the candidate's plane would almost certainly spark a run of negative stories in the media about Kerry lieutenants lashing out and their preelection confidence vanishing.

After the videotape of bin Laden was widely broadcast Friday afternoon, a Republican guest on Cavuto's show said the Al Qaeda leader's criticisms of President Bush amounted to ''an endorsement" of Kerry. A second guest objected, saying, ''I don't think he's going to have a Kerry-Edwards sticker in the cave."

Chimed in Cavuto: ''He's all but doing that. I thought I saw a button."

The exchange infuriated advisers to Kerry. Campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter told Fox News executives they had three hours to issue a retraction and an apology; she did not deliver an ultimatum, she told the Globe, but simply stated that an admission of fault was expected.

''It was an outrageous comment that should never been made, at a time when America's national security is at stake," Cutter said.

Fox News said nothing by the three-hour deadline, when Kerry's 757 jet was leaving Miami for Wisconsin.

On board was a producer for Fox News, who was one of the first reporters to cover Kerry in 2003 and remains among a handful of journalists that the Democratic nominee knows by name. The producer sought out senior adviser Mike McCurry to discuss the conflict, and at one point she came into sight of Sasso, a Massachusetts political strategist and Kerry's top adviser on the plane.

''Is that the one? Is that her?" Sasso said as he looked at the Fox producer, according to several people present. ''I want her off the plane tomorrow. I'm not kidding."

The producer spent the rest of the flight talking to Fox executives by phone. Cutter said afterward that Fox would not be removed from the plane, and that Sasso had erred in making his remark, given the Fox producer's reputation as a widely respected professional.

''He [Sasso] was wrong to say that. We jumped all over him for it," Cutter said.

The episode was a relatively rare flash of tensions between a presidential campaign and the media this year. Vice President Dick Cheney was recently the focus of a New York Times article about the Republican campaign's apparent refusal to provide a seat on his campaign plane to a Times reporter. Last month, a Fox News reporter was reportedly reprimanded after he wrote a fake segment script that mocked Kerry's mannerisms -- an episode the campaign quickly shrugged off.

Patrick Healy can be reached at

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