The controversy over President Bush's National Guard service during the Vietnam War should have little effect on voters' views of the incumbent, experts said in interviews Wednesday.
To gain electoral ground, these same experts contend, Democrats must establish a clear pattern that damages the commander-in-chief's credibility. But it may be too little, too late for Democrats. The public may be already numb to Vietnam politics in this presidential election.
What is news is that gaps in Mr. Bush's service, combined with witness testimony, appear to substantiate Democratic claims that the president was absent from a portion of his required service. A comprehensive investigation by The Boston Globe, published Wednesday, stated that "Bush fell well short of meeting his military obligation."
It is the first article in a major American newspaper that concludes that Mr. Bush neither fulfilled his service nor faced the penalties prescribed for his delinquency.
Mr. Bush signed a "statement of understanding" in 1968 acknowledging his comprehension of guard requirements and pledging to adhere to them. But Wednesday, the Globe reported, "Bush, a fighter-interceptor pilot, performed no service for one six-month period in 1972 and for another period of almost three months in 1973, the records show."
Yet the news may do little more then begin to neutralize attacks on the nature of Sen. John Kerry's service overseas. That is well short of what the Kerry campaign hopes.
Democrats want to establish a presidential credibility gap, past and present. The dilemma for the Kerry campaign is that voters generally focus on the present when assessing an incumbent running for reelection. Oval Office experience generally rebuffs attacks dating back decades.
"It's not going to have a big impact. It had a bigger impact on Kerry because he is generally unknown to voters," said Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia. "And maybe the Swift Boat veterans ate up whatever appetite there was about information people wanted to know on Vietnam."
The late-July Democratic convention focused almost exclusively on Kerry's war record. Sabato called the four-day theme "a mistake," because "it really encouraged a counter-reaction."
The counter-reaction was furious and effective. In advertising that spawned a flurry of news coverage, a conservative organization backed by supporters of the president, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, said Kerry misrepresented his two tours of duty during the war. The ads further accused Kerry of betraying fellow servicemen upon his return when, as a leader of the antiwar movement, he publicly testified to alleged atrocities by U.S. troops.
Kerry supporters are ready to rebut. A newly formed organization will soon begin airing ads stating that President Bush "dodged his own military duty during Vietnam." Called Texans for Truth, the group has ties to the liberal organization MoveOn.org.
But election experts doubt the group's attacks on the president will stick.
"Unlike Kerry, [President Bush] is not making the claim that this is central to his biography," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, and an expert on presidential political communication.
"Bush has the advantage of the last four years," Jamieson continued. "It would have more impact if Bush had claimed [Kerry's service was exaggerated]. But he didn't; surrogates did."
The surrogates for President Bush were formidable. Former President George H.W. Bush called the Swift Boat advertising "quite compelling" on CNN. Former Senate Majority Leader and Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole also said "there's got to be some truth to the charges."
Presidents are judged on their record in the Oval Office; challengers need to define themselves. Experts and polling suggest that, whether accurate or inaccurate, what voters learned of Kerry over the summer hurt him more than it helped.
Emory University political scientist Merle Black says "a huge information gap" existed in the public's mind about Kerry. This allowed the advertising against him to succeed. Whereas, he added, disputes over President Bush's military service are "new developments in an old story."
"Kerry's running as a hero in a war that he very strongly criticized," said Black, which "invites people to look over his service very closely and what happened in the aftermath."
Mr. Bush, on the other hand, "will be evaluated based upon his conduct in the presidency. Voters evaluate presidents based on their performance in office, what they observed in him as president."
By David Paul Kuhn