WASHINGTON, Sept. 9 (UPI) -- President George W. Bush ignored renewed Democratic attacks Thursday over his National Guard service during the Vietnam War and kept his focus on his economic agenda and the war on terror during campaign appearances in Pennsylvania, but campaign and White House officials denounced them as political smear attacks by an opponent behind in the polls.
"I think the Democrats are frustrated because they missed a huge opportunity to lay out a vision at their convention," Bush-Cheney spokesman Reed Dickens told UPI. "They spent four nights talking about the fact that he (Kerry) was a veteran, which the people already knew. They are frustrated over a blown opportunity and they have resorted to smear tactics."
News reports have surfaced quoting documents that indicated Bush may have not met regulations and orders while serving in the Air National Guard during the Vietnam War, including failure to take a required flight physical and showing up for required drills during duty in Alabama, where he had transferred from Texas to take part in a political campaign.
A former Texas lieutenant governor who has raised funds for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's run for the presidency has also surfaced and claimed Bush used his father's political influence to get a slot in the Guard. The statement contradicts those he had given earlier.
Bush Thursday, speaking outside Philadelphia, did not mention the controversy. Instead he concentrated on his themes of reforming healthcare, making the country more competitive economically, overhauling the tax code, continued reform of education, increased job-skills training and other initiatives to continue stimulating the economy. The country had overcome an inherited recession and the economic damage of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by al-Qaida (1 million jobs lost within a month of the attacks, he said), but more needed to be done.
He also stressed economic security could not be separated from homeland security.
"In order to make sure we have sustained economic growth, we will also continue to protect the homeland over the next four years," he said.
In Washington itself, the news was dominated by the National Guard fracas.
"They said they released all their documents, which wasn't true, and second, that the president had served honorably in the Air National Guard. Those statements are just not true," Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said Wednesday, setting the stage for attacks by Democrats and Democratic advocacy groups.
"This administration, I mean, makes the Richard Nixon's White House look open, accessible and truthful. I mean, it's shocking, this Bush White House and the misleading statements and the lies that we've been told."
Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa said Thursday, "I think this goes right to the heart of the truthfulness of the president of the United States. ... Character counts. Character, honesty, forthrightness -- these are the qualities we want in a president of the United States. The president has basically campaigned on these issues, that he has these qualities, which now we know the president is seriously lacking."
Questions about Bush's Guard serviced surfaced in his previous campaigns and fell to the wayside amid Bush's reiteration of having completed his duty and received an honorable discharge. They arose and subsided this year when the White House released Bush's National Guard records in response to media questions. They arose again this week when records, apparently in the file of one of his commanders, were released by the Department of Defense under a Freedom of Information Act request.
"He got an honorable discharge. He logged over 500 flying hours, the records clearly show that," deputy White House spokesman Trent Duffy said. "This is just recycled political attacks from a campaign that is trying to find a groove.
"The whole (attack) campaign is being led by Terry McAuliffe and the DNC and Kerry surrogates, and it's being funded by Kerry surrogates and supporters, so it's obviously a brazen political attack."
Texans for Truth, a pro-Kerry 527 advocacy group, is launching an ad in five states this week that questions Bush's National Guard service.
Kerry, who has run neck-and-neck with Bush in public-opinion polling for months, was 7 points down in the most recent Gallup Poll. A CNS News poll in mid-August showed Kerry's standing with veterans dropped from a dead heat with Bush (46 percent) just after the Democratic convention in late July to a 55 percent to 37 percent disadvantage by mid-August.
Believed responsible for the drop has been a series of advertisements by Kerry's former Navy colleagues in Vietnam that claim Kerry fabricated his combat record to gain three Purple Hearts and two awards for bravery. Also contributing was an ad by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that featured former Vietnam prisoners of war saying Kerry's anti-war activity following his service in Vietnam was used by their captors as propaganda.
Kerry served four months as a river patrol boat driver in 1968-1969. After his tour and release from active duty he became a prominent anti-war activist and testified before the Senate, claiming U.S. troops were guilty of routinely committing atrocities. While a Navy officer in the inactive reserves, he met privately with North Vietnamese delegates to the Paris peace talks.
Kerry made his Vietnam service the focal point of his credentials for president at the Democratic National Convention in Boston.
Kerry later accused Bush of being behind the Swift boat ads, which Bush denied. Bush subsequently condemned all attack ads by the 527 advocacy organizations and called on Kerry to join him in seeking their ban, but Kerry did not do so.
Bush has made his leadership a pillar of his re-election campaign, slamming Kerry for consistent inconsistency on issues over the years and especially on the war against Iraq.
With poll numbers falling and Republicans appearing to dominate the issues debate, former Clinton administration and campaign personnel joined Kerry's team over the weekend. Among them are James Carville and Paul Begala, campaign strategists, and Joe Lockhart, former press secretary.
In other developments Thursday Swift Boat Veterans for Truth announced that an ad attacking Kerry's anti-war activities was being run from Friday on national cable television for seven days.
Former prisoners of war were also being featured in a new documentary about Kerry and his anti-war activities called "Stolen Honor." The ex-POWs said the documentary could be ordered over the Internet.
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