Republican John McCain, who four years ago condemned independent ads challenging Democrat John Kerry's military record, has accepted nearly $70,000 for his presidential campaign from the top donors of the group behind the attack ads and their relatives, a USA TODAY analysis shows.
That's nearly four times the amount McCain received from those donors in the 14 years before launching his current campaign at the end of 2006, campaign finance records show.
In 2004, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (later called SwiftVets and POWS for Truth) bankrolled ads charging that Kerry had lied about the incidents in Vietnam that led to his military decorations. The group included former members of the Navy who served in the same kind of river patrol boats as Kerry. McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war, called the group's advertising "dishonest and dishonorable."
McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds said in an e-mail that McCain accepted the money because the donors are "interested in supporting (his) agenda of reform, prosperity and peace." He said McCain has been critical of so-called 527 groups — named for the tax code section under which they operate — and argued that "virtually every attack-style 527 group on the airwaves" is aiding Democrat Barack Obama.
Obama recently cited 527s as a reason he decided to bypass public-financing in the general election.
Outside groups have spent nearly $10 million to aid Obama in this election, according to data compiled by the non-partisan CQMoneyLine, which tracks campaign money. Independent groups have spent less than $50,000 on McCain's behalf.
The USA TODAY analysis examined donations to McCain's campaign by the top 20 contributors to the Swift Boat group. It found that nine Swift Boat donors and their family members have given $69,100 to McCain's White House bid.
Bob Perry, a Texas builder who gave nearly $4.5 million to Swift Boat Vets, and his wife, Doylene, each have given $4,400 to McCain's presidential campaign, some of which went to an account for legal and accounting expenses, records show.
Perry's spokesman, Anthony Holm,said the couple donated because they "strongly support" McCain.
Other donors include Sam Fox, a St. Louis businessman who was named U.S. ambassador to Belgium last year by President Bush. Fox and family members have contributed more than $11,000 to McCain's presidential bid.
Fox's nomination drew controversy in the Senate last year because of his $50,000 donation to the Swift Boat group. The White House withdrew the nomination after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee appeared ready to reject Fox, but Bush later used a recess appointment to name Fox to the post. Fox did not respond to an interview request.
Another Swift Boat donor, Aubrey McClendon, an Oklahoma City energy company executive who gave $250,000 to the group four years ago, has contributed $2,300 each to McCain and Obama this year. McClendon, an independent, said he did so because "both men have very positive attributes" and he has not decided whom to support in the general election.
McClendon, however, said he has decided to steer clear of 527 groups during this campaign. "They are too controversial, and I'm not interested in generating political controversy," he said.
Obama's campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Although the Swift Boat group has long been inactive, it continues to spark controversy. On Monday, Kerry and national Democratic Party officials sharply criticized McCain for including retired Air Force colonel Bud Day in a conference call with reporters to defend McCain's military service. Day had appeared in Swift Boat ads.
The Price of Power is an ongoing series tracking the role of money in politics.