HOUSTON -- President Bush, on the defensive over his supporters' attacks on John Kerry's war record, sidestepped a barrage of questions yesterday about the content of ads assailing his Democratic opponent and instead repeated his broader call for an end to all third-party advertising in the election.
Bush praised Kerry for serving "admirably in Vietnam," saying he should be "proud of his record." He asked Kerry to join him "in getting rid of that kind of soft money," which can be raised without limits and is playing an increasingly powerful role in the presidential race. The Kerry campaign declined to join Bush in calling for an end to soft-money advertising.
Bush, speaking to reporters at his ranch near Crawford, Texas, did not respond to allegations by Kerry that he is running a "smear campaign" and declined to address the allegations by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth -- the soft-money organization at the heart of the current controversy -- that Kerry lied about his combat service in Vietnam for political gain.
At the same time, a Houston-based leader of the swift boat group said his organization would not curb its advertising even if Bush asked and is planning to expand its campaign to discredit Kerry. The group intends to trail the Democratic nominee in battleground states and coordinate advertising and appearances by veterans sympathetic to their cause.
John E. O'Neill said that his associates are developing a database of former swift boat veterans, "focusing on people from each state," who can keep questions about his service three decades ago in the spotlight. Originally buoyed by a $200,000 donation from a major Republican backer in Houston, the swift boat group now says it has raised $1.56 million from more than 24,000 donors, mostly since the organization began running ads attacking Kerry after the Democratic convention.
"Our media strategy is to follow him," both with paid advertising and press conferences, O'Neill said of Kerry in an interview at his Houston law firm. O'Neill, who emerged as the chief counterpoint to Kerry in the 1970s after both men returned from Vietnam, said he still "resents deeply" the nominee's antiwar protests and would not heed any warning from Republicans to stop his campaign.
The Kerry campaign, following up on its two recent television ads rebutting the veteran group's charges and demanding Bush condemn them, lambasted the president for refusing to disavow the specific charges leveled at his Democratic rival.
"The moment of truth came and went, and the president still couldn't bring himself to do the right thing," Senator John Edwards, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, said in a statement. "We need a president with the strength and integrity to say when something is wrong. . . . President Bush, it's time to do the right thing."
Nearly half of the 15 or so questions Bush fielded from reporters yesterday pertained to the swift boat ordeal, despite Bush's intent to focus on military matters with his top commanders. Asked why he would not denounce the attacks on Kerry, Bush insisted he had, in fact, denounced the ad by denouncing all ads by independent groups. Asked whether he believes Kerry lied about his war record, Bush responded "I think Senator Kerry served admirably, and he ought to be, he ought to be proud of his record. But the question is, who's best to lead the country in the war on terror?"
The debate over Kerry's war service has escalated dramatically over the last few weeks as veterans on both sides have surfaced to both denounce and back allegations about Kerry's behavior on the battlefield and after he returned from the war. Over the weekend, former senator Bob Dole, the Republican presidential nominee in 1996 and a decorated World War II veteran who lost the use of his right arm in the war, questioned the extent of Kerry's war injuries and demanded Kerry apologize for his postwar protests. Yesterday, Kerry aides said the Massachusetts senator called Dole. The aides described the conversation as "friendly" but declined to offer specifics about what was said.
Kerry advisers also arranged a conference call with three of its own Vietnam veteran supporters, all of whom were in boats around Kerry's at the time of the 1969 ambush and river rescue that led to the nominee's Bronze Star. One of the veterans, Richard Baker, described Kerry as "the most aggressive officer in charge of the swift boats."
"John Kerry was a step above the rest of us, in my opinion," said Baker, who served as officer-in-charge of PCF-28, another boat involved in the battle. Another veteran on the call, Jim Russell, said of Kerry: "I found him an aggressive, tough, and by-the-book guy."
The third participant, Rich McCann, said he had contacted the swift boat group to complain about their use of his photograph and their characterization of Kerry's leadership. He said the group did not respond.
According to leaders of the swift boat group, the organization has been flooded with calls from both sides and has seen a pronounced increase in its donations and support over the last month. Retired Admiral Roy Hoffman, the founder of the swift boat group, said in a phone interview that the group is conducting media training in swing states such as Ohio, providing swift boat veterans who volunteer to help with talking points, information booklets, and a copy of the book O'Neill authored in an attempt to debunk Kerry's claim of heroism. Hoffman said the dramatic increase in media attention -- fueled by Kerry's demand that Bush denounce the content of the ads, and the president's refusal to do so -- has only helped their cause. According to at least one recent poll, Kerry has seen a precipitous decline in support among veterans who are registered voters.
After the Democratic convention, that bloc was evenly split, 46 to 46, between the two campaigns. But by last Thursday, support from veterans for Kerry had dropped to 37 percent, with 55 percent favoring Bush.
"The more the controversy grows, the more the money pours in," Hoffman said.
"None of us expected the success of the first ad," in which Kerry is accused of lying about his war record, Hoffman said. "We knew it would be controversial. That's why we ran the thing. But we never expected, by any stretch of the imagination, to get upwards of 50 percent of people surveyed to say they'd seen the ad." Kerry campaign officials said they have seen a similar flood of enthusiasm -- and outrage -- from their supporters in response to the controversy, including large crowds at appearances by former senator Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in the Vietnam war and who was defeated by a Republican in 2002.
"People are upset about the ad," Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said.
Both Hoffman and O'Neill said they would not consider ending their campaign against Kerry, even after hearing Bush's comments condemning groups such as theirs.
Recently, Bush advisers have said there was no practical reason for the president to condemn the ads, because the call would go unheeded.
Instead, Bush, responding to several questions about the swift boat groups and Dole's remarks, drove home his criticism of soft-money organizations, which have spent tens of millions attacking his own campaign as well.
"I'm denouncing all the stuff being on TV of the 527s," Bush said, referring to the "527" groups that can raise unlimited amounts of soft money and are forbidden from coordinating with the official campaigns. "That's what I've said. I said this kind of unregulated soft money is wrong for the process." Asked whether that included the current swift boat veterans ad, Bush said, "That means that ad, every other ad."
Glen Johnson of the Globe staff contributed to this report.