Signaling a shift in tactics, Sen. John F. Kerry on Tuesday aggressively challenged whether President Bush had completed his National Guard service during the Vietnam War, hammering at an issue he had declined to pursue earlier in the campaign.
The presumptive Democratic nominee, a decorated Vietnam veteran, questioned the service of both Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, telling the Dayton Daily News that the administration was disparaging his national security credentials because they lacked their own military record.
“I think a lot of veterans are going to be very angry at a president who can’t account for his own service in the National Guard, and a vice president who got every deferment in the world and decided he had better things to do, criticizing somebody who fought for their country and served,” Kerry told the newspaper.
For the second day in a row, Kerry raised questions about Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard -- an issue the Massachusetts senator had said in mid-February that he would not bring up.
But after fielding a new round of attacks from Republicans about his record on defense, Kerry’s campaign released a list of nine “unanswered” questions Tuesday, demanding that Bush prove that he fulfilled his obligation to the military.
“If they’re going to attack me, and they’re going to start accusing me of something, then I’m going to demand a level of accountability ... that I think ought to be forthcoming,” Kerry said Tuesday evening during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews.”
In February, amid Democratic accusations that Bush was absent without leave from the Guard, the White House released reams of documents that aides said accounted for his entire military file. But the records did not resolve the question of whether Bush served all his required time during a temporary assignment in Alabama, and later at his air base in Texas.
During a conference call Tuesday arranged by the Kerry campaign, fellow Vietnam veteran and former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland accused Bush of shirking his duty.
“When you compared John Kerry’s voluntary service overseas, in war, in combat, and decorated for that service, it does not compare at all with George Bush never ever leaving the shores of Texas and actually becoming somewhat of a National Guard dropout in Alabama,” Cleland said.
Bush campaign spokesman Nicolle Devenish responded by pointing to the senator’s votes against weapons programs being used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“John Kerry has not detailed a credible alternative to President Bush’s decisive leadership in the war on terror and his record on defense and security measures raises serious questions about his judgment,” Devenish said in a statement. “Instead of explaining his record, John Kerry has turned to political attacks on the president.”
The multi-front attack by the Kerry campaign underscored the odd and troubling predicament facing the candidate: that despite his credentials as a decorated veteran, the candidate has been put on the defensive over his service in Vietnam, his subsequent antiwar activities and his votes on military matters.
On Monday, Kerry was confronted with footage from a 1971 television interview that renewed questions about whether he ever claimed he threw away his own war medals during an antiwar protest at the U.S. Capitol that year. Meanwhile, Cheney delivered a speech in which he cited Kerry’s votes against defense projects as evidence that he was soft on terror. And the Bush campaign began airing a new television commercial underscoring the same theme.
Some analysts suggested that the Bush campaign had attacked Kerry’s record aggressively to distract attention from the recent explosion of violence in Iraq. Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of the president’s appearance on an aircraft carrier under the banner “Mission Accomplished” to declare the end to major combat there.
“Perhaps the perception of vulnerability is one reason why the Bush campaign is throwing so much mud so far and so hard so early, trying to kind of take a preemptive strike,” said Michael Sherry, a professor of history at Northwestern University who studies public opinion and war.
Some Democratic political operatives have expressed surprise that the candidate has had to defend a credential that should be an asset for him.
“The Kerry people have still got to get more adept at anticipating these attacks and dealing with them,” said one Democratic strategist who declined to be identified.
Kerry advisors acknowledged privately that the Bush campaign had been nimble at controlling the debate, but dismissed suggestions that the topic put them on the defensive.
“These guys clearly wanted to change the subject, and they have, at some level,” said one senior advisor who did not want to be named.
“But at another level, they’ve changed to a subject that works to our advantage.... As far as the country is concerned, we’re on the offensive, because what the Bush administration is doing is telling people that John Kerry’s a decorated hero who risked his life to save other people.”
Some Democratic political experts said that Bush’s attempt to undermine Kerry’s war record would backfire.
“If it’s open season on John Kerry and his background when he was in his 20s and 30s, then it makes sense that it’s open season to discuss President Bush’s behavior when he was in his 20s and 30s,” said political consultant Bill Carrick.
Bush, 57, has admitted to a boisterous past before swearing off alcohol the day after his 40th birthday. But he has steadfastly refused to answer yes-or-no questions about drug use.
Another front in the TV ad war opened this week when MoveOn.org, a liberal group, began a new 60-second commercial that contrasts Kerry’s record in Vietnam with Bush’s record in the Air National Guard. The group’s political action committee is spending more than $100,000 to run the ad this week on Fox News Channel nationally and on CNN in New York City and Washington. It is the first pro-Democratic ad to raise the issue of Bush’s National Guard service. The group indicated that it may soon broadcast the ad in battleground states.
The MoveOn ad shows scenes of Kerry serving as a decorated naval officer in Vietnam and includes footage from a documentary, “Band of Brothers,” on his hazardous stint in the Mekong Delta. The ad also depicts Bush in an unflattering light, detailing how the future president chose not to volunteer for combat in Vietnam, secured a coveted spot in the Guard, failed at one point to show up for a physical examination and secured an early release to attend Harvard Business School.
Kerry, at a fundraiser Tuesday night, mocked Republican efforts to portray him as soft on defense, and took on Cheney directly.
“The vice president -- who’s run around, finding so much time to be destructive -- in 1992, he was secretary of Defense, and he bragged and led the effort to cut the military,” he said.
Meanwhile, Kerry accepted an invitation to speak Friday at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., where Cheney delivered his speech Monday lambasting the senator’s record. In a letter he sent after the speech to students and faculty, college President Fletcher Lamkin criticized the vice president’s partisan remarks and invited Kerry to speak “in the interest of balance.”
Times staff writers James Rainey in Youngstown, Ohio, Nick Anderson in Washington and Susannah Rosenblatt in Los Angeles contributed to this report. Gold reported from Cleveland, Barabak from San Francisco.