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How Will Voters Handle the ‘Truth’ About Kerry and Bush?

Ronald Brownstein's column appears every Monday.

Is it strategy or therapy for Democrats to escalate their attacks on President Bush’s record in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam era?

Certainly the new television ads from a liberal Texas group accusing Bush of ducking his service are cathartic for Democrats. Democrats have been seething as a Republican-leaning veterans group has accused Sen. John F. Kerry of misrepresenting his experience in Vietnam at a time when Bush was safely stateside, about 9,300 miles away. Once Swift Boat Veterans for Truth launched their offensive against Kerry, the counterattack against Bush became inevitable.

But it’s another question whether the charges will help Kerry overcome Bush’s lead in the race. The dominant opinion in both parties is that Americans care far more about the choices the candidates are offering today than their personal choices 35 years ago, and that’s probably right.

But Kerry’s deterioration in the polls during August, while he faced the most withering assault from the Swift boat group, suggests these questions may be more relevant to voters than they acknowledge when asked directly. Based on Kerry’s experience, it would be foolish to assume that voters will simply dismiss the accusations about Bush as old news.

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If nothing else, voters are sure to hear more about the Guard controversy by election day. Leading Democrats are now amplifying their attacks on Bush’s tenure in the Guard. Newspapers are reopening investigations into Bush’s record after reports in the Boston Globe and on CBS’ “60 Minutes” (though the latter has been tangled in controversy over whether documents alleging that Bush received favorable treatment are authentic).

At the same time, Texans for Truth, the new liberal group targeting Bush’s Guard record, is determined to continue spotlighting the issue. The group, a spinoff from a Texas affiliate of the liberal online advocacy group MoveOn.org, seems to have struck the same chord with liberal donors that the Swift boat effort did with conservatives.

Glenn Smith, the veteran Texas Democratic political operative who launched Texans for Truth, says the group raised $400,000 within 72 hours after unveiling its television ad last week in which a retired lieutenant colonel from the Alabama Air National Guard said he never saw Bush at a time the future president was supposed to be serving in the same unit. With that money, Smith says, the group may both expand the buy for that initial ad and air others questioning different aspects of Bush’s Guard record.

All of this virtually ensures that the Guard issue will remain a headache and distraction for Bush, just like the Swift boat attacks were for Kerry. But the assaults on Bush probably won’t materially affect the race unless voters buy the critics’ assumption that his behavior 30 years ago illuminates his values and character today. And that link may be tougher to establish.

Bush critics believe the controversy could threaten the president on four distinct fronts. Some believe suggestions that Bush tried to evade combat as a young man will undermine his moral authority to order soldiers into battle today. If voters reached that conclusion it might be devastating for Bush. But it seems unlikely many would: Other than hard-core opponents, few Americans believed President Clinton’s efforts to avoid Vietnam made him morally unfit to commit American forces in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Critics also think the questions about whether Bush fulfilled his obligations may encourage voters to see him as someone who consistently evades responsibility -- the same way critics say he has refused to accept accountability for the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal or intelligence failures in Iraq. That may be an intriguing psychological theory, but it’s probably too abstract for most Americans.

A greater threat for Bush is that more revelations could erode his credibility. The new ad from Texans for Truth challenges Bush’s insistence that he fulfilled all of his duties in Alabama. The claims from Democratic former Texas House Speaker Ben Barnes, repeated on CBS, that he helped Bush win his spot in the Guard at the request of a mutual friend don’t directly contradict specific statements from the president. But they do dispute Bush’s overall version of how he entered the Guard by assigning favoritism a much larger role.

Still, the consensus in both parties so far is that the evidence isn’t conclusive enough to cause most voters to decide that Bush lied in describing his record.

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Instead, the greatest threat to Bush may come if the cumulative picture of his Guard experience -- from Barnes’ claim of intervention to the questions about whether superiors winked at irregular attendance -- portrays him as a son of privilege who has enjoyed advantages unavailable to most Americans. That’s potentially dangerous because polls show many voters already question whether Bush understands the problems of average families.

As Kerry learned in August, new charges often hurt most when they reinforce old suspicions: The attack on his antiwar activities hurt him so much partly because many culturally conservative voters were already inclined to wonder if a Massachusetts Democrat shared their values.

Privilege pokes at a comparable stereotype about Republicans.

The unexpectedly large wounds Kerry suffered in the Swift boat strafing argues for caution in predicting the course of this controversy. Republicans may become energized by charges that the documents in the CBS report were forged. Democrats may be stirred by the ads expressing their belief Bush ducked his service. Voters less attached to either side may wish the campaign debate over Iraq were as thorough as the arguments about Vietnam.

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The only point all might accept is that this election seems determined to prove William Faulkner was right when he ruefully declared, “The past is never dead; it’s not even past.”

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Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See his current and past columns at The Times’ website at latimes.com/brownstein.


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