President Bush' record of military service has come under attack by prominent Democrats — the fifth time in as many presidential campaigns that a candidate's experience during the Vietnam war has been made an issue.
What's unclear is whether it will work this time. Candidates accused of shirking their military duties have consistently won in recent history.
The Vietnam issue began generating headlines last month when filmmaker Michael Moore, a Clark supporter, called Mr. Bush a "deserter." It erupted again when Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe said Sunday on ABC that he looked forward to a debate between decorated veteran John Kerry and the president, "a man who was AWOL."
"George Bush never served in our military in our country. He didn't show up when he should have showed up," McAuliffe said.
McAuliffe was referring to the allegation that when Mr. Bush transferred from the Texas Air National Guard to an Alabama unit in 1972 to work on a Senate campaign, he did not fulfill his duties.
Bush allies have responded furiously. Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie called McAuliffe's charge "slanderous." Bush campaign chairman Mark Racicot said the attacks were "a new low."
But there's nothing new about Vietnam service as an issue in presidential politics.
In 1988, Dan Quayle was accused of pulling strings to get into the Indiana National Guard and get out of going to Southeast Asia.
In 1992 and 1996, first the elder President Bush and then Sen. Bob Dole — both decorated World War II veterans — compared their service to President Clinton's avoiding Vietnam.
Four years ago, several Democrats first raised the issue of the current President Bush's record.
In each of those campaigns, the candidate accused of shirking his responsibilities has prevailed when votes were counted.
If the attacks on the president are aimed at veterans, they're targeting a powerful voting group: There are 25 million veterans in the United States. And they are reliable voters; Internal surveys suggest eighty percent of American Legion members cast ballots regularly.
But while Kerry and Clark's service may count for something among veterans, observers feel the president's record is unlikely to become a major issue.
A candidate can boost his credibility when he speaks on defense and veterans issues if he served, says American Legion spokesman Steve Thomas. But veterans' main interest is in what the office-seeker actually says on defense spending, military pay and veterans' health care.
Veterans are "aware of the unique contribution of those who emerged from the fiery crucible of battle," said Thomas, himself a Navy veteran, who stresses his organization is nonpartisan. "We understand that's a special level of service, but not to the detriment of someone else's service."
Rather than an attempt to score points with veterans, Brookings Institution historian Stephen Hess sees McAuliffe's remark as "a shot across the bow" to Republicans on foreign policy, signaling that Democrats feel they can neutralize any suggestion that their candidate is soft on defense.
Kerry seemed to reflect this thinking when he said on Feb. 3. "Our opponents say they want to campaign on national security. Well, we will not run from that debate; we welcome it."
"This isn't going to elect (Mr. Bush) or defeat him or make any difference," Hess said. "What it does is, if I'm attacked for whatever set of weaknesses I'm said to have, let me just remind you I fought for my country."
So far, no candidate has accused Mr. Bush of dereliction of duty.
But both Kerry and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who was also decorated for service in Vietnam, have contrasted their military service with the president's, mocking Mr. Bush's much-publicized trip to the USS Lincoln last May.
"I know something about aircraft carriers for real," Kerry often says. Clark has said more than once that, "Patriotism is not dressing in a flight suit and prancing around."
McAuliffe has raised the issue of Mr. Bush's military record before. Appearing on CNN's Late Edition in November, McAuliffe said the president failed to wear a flight suit "when he should have worn one, when he was supposedly in the Alabama National Guard."
It is a fact that Mr. Bush is a veteran: He was honorably discharged. The question McAuliffe raised is about what Mr. Bush did in uniform.
According to various published accounts, Mr. Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard in May 1968.
The son of a congressman, Mr. Bush leapt ahead of others waiting to join the Guard, which offered entrants good hope of avoiding Vietnam. Mr. Bush rose quickly to the rank of second lieutenant and became a pilot despite scoring a 25 percent on the qualifying exam. Bush aides have said the Texas unit was in need of pilots at the time.
Mr. Bush received a transfer to an Alabama guard unit in 1972 so he could work on a Senate campaign. In August 1972 he was cited for failing to report for a physical, and the Alabama unit commander says he does not recall seeing Mr. Bush. But Bush aides contend the president fulfilled his duty there.
Later, Mr. Bush applied for and received permission to leave the Guard early, in September 1973, to attend business school at Harvard.
Neither the Kerry nor Clark campaigns returned a phone call asking if Mr. Bush's military service was a legitimate issue.
But legitimate or not, Republican pollster Linda DiVall feels the issue won't matter.
"My sense is that something that occurred back in the 70s is not going to be the defining impression of President Bush," DiVall said. "This isn't going to do anything to undermine his credentials on prosecuting the war on terrorism. That record speaks for himself."
Even among Democrats, military service has been an issue.
Clark last month said of Kerry: "He's a lieutenant and I'm a general." Clark has also joked that while he was in Vietnam, Howard Dean — exempt from the war because of a back condition — was skiing.
By Jarrett Murphy