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Campaign Word War Rages

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry rejected Republican demands that he apologize for calling his GOP critics "the most crooked, you know, lying group I've ever seen."

A group of GOP leaders in the House and Senate called on Kerry to stop negative campaigning even as Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., said they see the Massachusetts senator as "Ted Kennedy on a South Beach diet."

"I have no intention whatsoever of apologizing for my remarks," Kerry said during a Thursday news conference on the Senate side of the Capitol. "I think the Republicans need to start talking about the real issues before the country."

Kerry returned to Capitol Hill on Thursday to meet privately with House and Senate Democrats. He also talked privately with one-time rival John Edwards, and later met with 100 of Edwards' top fund-raisers. Drawing more attention, however, was reaction to his offhand remark while campaigning Wednesday in Chicago.

"If you ask me, he's getting off on the wrong foot in this campaign by name-calling," House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., told reporters as he and other GOP leaders met in his office Thursday. "We're not lying when we start saying that Senator Kerry is the old-time Democrat of tax and spend."

Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said Kerry's remark gave Americans "a little glimpse of the real John Kerry, and he's not even tired yet." Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said Kerry should apologize for a comment "outside the bounds of where people who want to hold the highest office in this country should be making."

Kerry rejected those arguments, saying he was referring to Republican critics who distort his record.

"There is a Republican attack squad that specializes in trying to destroy people and be negative," he said. "I haven't said anything that's incorrect about them. They've said a lot of things that are incorrect."

President Bush, meanwhile, was unveiling his first negative ads against Kerry, accusing the Democrat of seeking to raise taxes by $900 billion and wanting to "delay defending America."

"John Kerry: Wrong on taxes. Wrong on defense," says a female announcer in a new 30-second ad that will begin airing in battleground states.

A second ad tells voters they face choices on the economy, health care and the war on terrorism.

"We can go forward with confidence, resolve and hope. Or we can turn back to the dangerous illusions that terrorists are not plotting and outlaw regimes are no threat," Mr. Bush says in the second ad, without mentioning Kerry by name.

Kerry's campaign, calling the $900 billion figure "completely made up," prepared a response ad titled, "Misleading America" that accuses Mr. Bush of distorting the Democrat's record while touting Kerry's middle-class tax cut plans, said officials, on condition of anonymity.

During the Democratic primary, Kerry ran at least a dozen ads criticizing Mr. Bush or his policies.

Mr. Bush's first round of ads were positive, but stirred controversy last week with their use of images from the World Trade Center's smoldering wreckage. The president refused to retreat when critics called them crass exploitation of those killed in the attacks.

He said his response to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is a centerpiece of his campaign for re-election, and he underscored the point Thursday with a visit to a new victims' memorial, before headlining a campaign fund-raiser.

Kerry's meeting with Edwards followed a similar session Wednesday with another former rival, Howard Dean, Campaign officials said Kerry and the former Vermont governor had agreed to a joint appearance March 25. A Dean endorsement was certain, officials familiar with the talks said.

Kerry has no public schedule Friday.