WASHINGTON – The presidential race is getting nastier by the minute.
Presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry (search) got himself into hot water with Republicans on Wednesday when, after a speech on tax cuts in Chicago, supporters urged him to take on Bush.
Kerry responded, informally and off camera: "Let me tell you, we've just begun to fight. We're going to keep pounding. These guys are the most crooked, you know, lying group I've ever seen."
Bush-Cheney campaign chairman Marc Racicot (search) called on Kerry to apologize. Kerry said he's not sorry for his comments.
"Senator Kerry's statement today in Illinois was unbecoming of a candidate for the presidency of the United States of America, and tonight we call on Senator Kerry to apologize to the American people for this negative attack," Racicot said in a statement. "On the day that Senator Kerry emerged as his party's presumptive nominee, the president called to congratulate him. That goodwill gesture has been met by attacks and false statements."
Kerry spokesman David Wade said Kerry was referring to Republican critics in general and that the comment was intended to convey the message that "he's a Democrat who fights back."
But the Bush-Cheney campaign (search) didn't see it that way.
"John Kerry has run a relentlessly negative campaign from the very beginning and this comment is completely consistent with that," the campaign said.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said the comment offended him.
"I am one of those Republicans from Illinois. If he wants to describe me as being crooked and a liar, I think he will have his comeuppance coming," Hastert said Thursday. "I think the president went overboard in congratulating him on his nomination. If he wants to step off and start the campaign on this type of a note, it's too bad, it's really sad on the state of politics."
Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said Republicans have a record of smearing their opponents and that Kerry intended the comment to show that he will fight back.
"Four years ago, John Kerry saw what the Republican attack machine did to John McCain. Two years ago, he saw what it did to Max Cleland," Cutter said, recalling the Arizona senator who challenged Bush for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000 and the Georgia Democratic senator turned out of office in 2002. "What he was saying is he's not going to take it."
When Kerry posed for photos with black congressional leaders on Thursday, he ignored reporters' questions about the comment.
Kerry met privately for 45 minutes with Congressional Black Caucus members as he spent the day on Capitol Hill shoring up his support among congressional Democrats.
Black members of Congress expect to confer regularly with Kerry, help him plan campaign strategy and involve minorities in his effort to unseat Bush, a caucus official said Thursday.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., chair of the caucus, said after the meeting with Kerry that caucus members were encouraged that "this will be an ongoing relationship. ... It is clear we are all about the business of building America."
Kerry Pow-Wows With Dean, Edwards
After urging labor leaders to support his campaign, Kerry met with one-time rival Howard Dean (search) to discuss an endorsement and what role the former Vermont governor might play in his campaign.
Hoping to win over Dean, the presumptive nominee's staff greeted the fallen rival with a round of applause as he walked into Kerry headquarters. The two men shook hands, embraced briefly and raised joined hands for the cameras.
After the 45-minute meeting, officials close to the talks said Dean will endorse Kerry, with only the timing in question. The officials said the best time might be March 25, when the presidential candidates join former Presidents Clinton and Carter for a Democratic Party fund-raiser.
"I will work closely with John Kerry to make sure we beat George Bush (search) in November and turn our country around," Dean said in a statement that did not specifically mention an endorsement. "There is a lot we can do together to rebuild an America that belongs to all of us, and we'll be saying more about what our amazing grassroots network can do to help with his goal."
Dean has set March 18 to announce details of his grassroots advocacy organization.
Kerry was scheduled to meet with another key rival, John Edwards (search), on Thursday.
Edwards aides said he planned to bring 100 of his top fund-raising backers to the meeting in what was described as a passing of the torch to Kerry.
The Bush campaign issued "Howard Dean's Greatest Hits on John Kerry," a 10-item recounting of Dean's criticisms. The quotes from news stories include Dean's statement in January that "you're not going to change America by nominating somebody who's a Washington insider whose biggest long suit is talk."
In a satellite address to top AFL-CIO leaders meeting in Florida, Kerry said a "Bush Tax" stemming from the president's economic policies has driven up costs for working families. He vowed to reverse that trend while asking those making more than $200,000 a year to pay the same taxes they paid under Clinton, effectively repealing portions of the tax cut Bush pushed through Congress.
Kerry also proposed creating a $50 billion fund to help states provide struggling working families with relief from state and local taxes
"Under George Bush's policies, middle-class families are paying more," he said. "America's middle class can't afford a tax increase. That's why we're going to give the middle class a tax cut."
In response, the Bush campaign accused Kerry of favoring broad tax increases that would affect all taxpayers.
"John Kerry has voted for higher taxes 350 times and his numbers for new spending don't add up," said Steve Schmidt, a Bush campaign spokesman. "His campaign-trail promises mean he is going to raise taxes by at least $900 billion." It is the first time the Bush campaign has put a number on tax hikes it says Kerry favors.
Kerry said a middle-class tax cut would do far more to spark the economy than what Bush has pushed, by helping people afford college costs, pay for health care and make ends meet.
"If this president wants to make this election about taxes after he's cut billions for billionaires and given middle-class families a larger share to pay, we're ready for that fight," he said.
Kerry also addressed Democratic National Committee staff, seeking to end speculation that chairman Terry McAuliffe's role will be diminished. "No one can do what this man has done," Kerry said, according to Kerry and DNC aides in the private meeting.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.