In an interview with the New York Times, President Bush once again refused to condemn the unsubstantiated anti-Kerry ads put out by the political group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, though Bush did say for the first time that he thinks Kerry is telling the truth about what happened in Vietnam. "I think Senator Kerry should be proud of his record," Bush said. "No, I don't think he lied."
But Bush continued to frame the issue more generally around outside political groups that are operating on either side of the race. "I've been attacked by 527s too," he said, adding that such outside groups should be "outlawed." To that end, Bush telephoned Sen. John McCain on Thursday and secured the Arizona senator's support in a court challenge to some of the largest 527 groups -- which also happen to be the ones that favor John Kerry. "Lawyers for Mr. Bush said Thursday that they were drafting two lawsuits" the Times reports. "One, they said, is intended to expedite their complaint before the Federal Election Commission that Moveon.org, the Media Fund and America Coming Together, liberal groups running ads against the president, were illegally coordinating with Mr. Kerry. The other lawsuit, they said, would seek tighter restrictions on the groups' activities."
Has president Bush suddenly made a major shift in his thinking on campaign finance rules? Two years ago, he signed McCain's reform bill only grudgingly, without holding a signing ceremony, and even then he worried that the bill would restrain "the speech of a wide variety of groups on issues of public import in the months closest to an election." Now, though, he tells the Times that such groups "should have been outlawed a year ago. We have billionaires writing checks, large checks, to influence the outcome of the election."
Also notable in Bush's interview with the Times: He acknowledged that he made a "miscalculation of what the conditions would be" in postwar Iraq. Still, Bush "deflected efforts to inquire further into what went wrong with the occupation, suggesting that such questions should be left to historians, and insisting, as his father used to, that he would resist going 'on the couch' to rethink decisions."
For his part, John McCain continues to hedge his position on the incendiary Swift Boat issue and the presidential race as a whole. "I would like for [Bush] to specifically condemn that ad," McCain told the Washington Post. "But the most important thing to me is his commitment to bring [the 527s] 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 also said he supported Bush's decisions on Iraq, and he "enumerated disagreements with Kerry on foreign policy, including the Democratic nominee's vote against the resolution authorizing the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and his vote against the $87 billion authorization for Iraq and Afghanistan last year. 'But I do not mean to say that would make him a bad president,' McCain added."
The Los Angeles Times reports that Bush has opened up a slight lead on Kerry in three key states in the Midwest. "The three states, with a combined 41 electoral votes, are among those both sides view as critical to the outcome of the race. In Missouri, Bush leads among registered voters, 46 percent to 44 percent; in Wisconsin, he leads 48 percent to 44 percent; in Ohio, the president holds a 49 percent to 44 percent advantage, the surveys found."
The report also notes that Kerry trails in the three states "even though a majority of voters in each says the country is not better off because of Bush's policies and 'needs to move in a new direction.' Bush draws support from virtually all voters who support his policy direction; by contrast, Kerry attracts about four-fifths or fewer of voters who want a new course."