NEW YORK – President Bush wants to work with Sen. John McCain (search) to pursue court action against political ads by "shadowy" outside political groups, the White House said Thursday.
"The president said if the court action doesn't work, that he would be willing to pursue legislative action with Sen. McCain on that," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to New Mexico.
McCain, R-Ariz., who is supporting Bush's re-election effort, has called on the commander in chief to condemn the ads bashing Democratic opponent Sen. John Kerry's war record.
Court action, McClellan said, would involve trying to force the Federal Election Commission (search) to shut down all such groups.
"Senator McCain enthusiastically applauds President Bush's commitment to ensuring that 527s operate under the same funding rules that apply to federal political candidates," McCain spokesman Marshall Wittmann said in a statement.
If the court avenue does not work, McClellan said, Bush wants to work with McCain, a former Vietnam POW, to pursue legislative action.
Mike Russell, a spokesman for Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (search), the group that started the 527 firestorm, said Thursday that "we're going to continue doing what we're doing because this group is made up of more than 250 veterans who feel it is their obligation to tell the truth about John Kerry's military service."
"We're obviously going to abide by the spirit and letter of the law, but as it sits right now 527s are free to operate and we're going to continue to do so," he said.
Separately, on Wednesday, the Kerry camp said they would spend a half-million dollars to air an ad that featured McCain and statements he made four years ago during his presidential run in which he slammed Bush for implying the senator abandoned war veterans.
In an interview with The New York Times, McCain said he wished Kerry "would not use my campaign for the Republican nomination against President Bush.''
"We respect John McCain's wishes, and will stop running the ads of him challenging Bush to denounce the attacks on his service," said Kerry spokesman David Wade. "It's long past time that George Bush also take John McCain's advice and do the right thing by putting an end to the smears and lies attacking John Kerry's military service. George Bush needs to say this is wrong, he needs to say it must end."
The debate over Kerry's service in Vietnam has dominated the presidential race in recent weeks after Swift Boat Veterans, an unregulated, independent political action or "527" group, aired ads questioning Kerry's decorated record. The Massachusetts Democrat has accused the group of being a front for Bush's re-election effort.
The president's corner counters that some of Kerry's advisers are also working with anti-Bush groups.
"The issue here is not this ... the issue is lies being elevated to facts and that's wrong," John Hurley, the national director of Veterans for Kerry, told FOX News on Thursday. "John Kerry would certainly like to be talking about issues — it's not John Kerry or the Kerry campaign that's keeping this issue on the front page."
The Bush and Kerry camps agree that the ad flap surrounding the Democratic presidential nominee's experience during and after the Vietnam War is a distraction, but the issue just won't go away.
Bush has criticized all outside group attack ads but has not explicitly condemned the charges made in the swift boat ad. On the other hand, the Kerry campaign also has not denounced ads sponsored by groups such as MoveOn.org.
McClellan said the goal is "to shut down all of this activity by these shadowy groups."
The Bush campaign and the GOP have filed a complaint with the FEC accusing the Kerry campaign of illegally coordinating millions of dollars worth of anti-Bush ads with Democratic-leaning soft-money groups. It was the FEC's May 13 decision not to act on the complaint that allows the Bush campaign to turn to legal action, McClellan said.
"Our goal is a level playing field; all organizations working for the election or defeat of federal candidates should operate under the same standards and rules," Bush-Cheney campaign Chairman Marc Racicot said in a statement.
The Kerry campaign filed its own complaint last week with the FEC, alleging that Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was illegally coordinating its efforts with the Bush-Cheney campaign.
Just for Theater?
On Wednesday, former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland (search) said he tried to get a letter to Bush in Crawford, Texas, asking him to specifically denounce the swift boat ads but no one at the president's ranch would accept the letter.
Read Cleland's letter to Bush (pdf).
Cleland, a Democratic triple amputee who served in the Vietnam War, was accompanied by Jim Rassmann (search), the man who says he was pulled out of a river in Vietnam by Kerry, who ultimately saved his life.
But Jerry Patterson (search), the Texas state land commissioner and a former U.S. Marine who greeted the duo and was supposed to hand back a letter from various federal lawmakers in response, said the former senator refused to accept it and refused to hand him the letter to Bush.
"Senator Cleland wouldn't shake my hand, wouldn't talk to me, wouldn't recognize my presence" and he tried to give the letter to a Secret Service agent and others, Patterson told FOX News on Thursday.
"I don't think they had any intention of ever delivering the letter, this was about theater ... this was about staging an event for press purposes."
The letter Patterson was supposed to give Cleland said: "You can't have it both ways. You can't build your convention and much of your campaign around your service in Vietnam, and then try to say that only those veterans who agree with you have a right to speak up," the letter to Kerry says. "There is no double standard for our right to free speech. We all earned it."
Cleland's letter, signed by nine Democratic U.S. senators who are also war veterans, urged Bush to condemn the swift boat ads.
"As veterans of the armed services, we ask that you recognize this blatant attempt at character assassination and publicly condemn it," the letter to Bush says.
"These scurrilous attacks on John Kerry's credibility and war, his courage, his valor, are false and George Bush is behind it," Cleland told the press. "We're asking George Bush today to put up or shut up."
Meanwhile, John O'Neill (search), one of the men who helped put Kerry on the defensive over his military record, is answering questions about his own service during that conflict. O'Neill served in Vietnam from 1969-70 and took command of Kerry's swift boat after the future senator returned home from the war.
The controversy was ratcheted up a notch Wednesday when a lawyer who advised the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth resigned from Bush's re-election campaign.
Benjamin Ginsberg (search) said that although his activities are legal and the White House claims there was no coordination between the two corners, the imbroglio was taking too much focus away from substantial campaign issues.
On Saturday, retired Col. Kenneth Cordier (search), who served as a volunteer on the Bush-Cheney campaign's veterans steering committee, left the campaign after appearing in a swift boat veterans ad.
"No one in the Bush campaign has coordinated with the swift boat veterans," Karl Rove, Bush's senior political adviser, told FOX News' Brit Hume in an interview to be aired Thursday night at 6 p.m. EDT.
Ginsberg "knows that there's a hypocritical double standard on the part of some in the media, where a lawyer for the Bush campaign who is also the lawyer for a 527 is somehow suspect, where a lawyer for the Kerry campaign and the Democratic National Committee, who's also a lawyer for a 527 group is not," Rove continued. "And he accepted that reality and decided he wanted to help his friend. And the best way he could help his friend was to resign."
FOX News' Julie Asher, Carl Cameron, Trish Turner and The Associated Press contributed to this report.