TUCSON — As high-ranking Republicans sprang to President Bush's defense Monday over questions about his stint in the Texas Air National Guard, dueling comparisons about military service appeared poised to become a staple of the general election.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe began the latest verbal spat, by saying on ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" that he relished debate over military service if John F. Kerry became the party's nominee for president. The Massachusetts senator is a decorated Vietnam War veteran who has made his military service a centerpiece of his campaign.
"I look forward to that debate, when John Kerry, a war hero with a chest full of medals, is standing next to George Bush, a man who was AWOL in the Alabama National Guard," McAuliffe said Sunday. "George Bush never served in our military in our country. He didn't show up when he should have showed up."
The Republicans wasted no time rebutting McAuliffe. Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie told Republican activists in North Carolina on Monday that McAuliffe was "the John Wilkes Booth of character assassination," and described his comments about Bush as "reprehensible."
"Yesterday, my counterpart at the Democratic National Committee, Terry McAuliffe, accused the president of having been AWOL during his time in the National Guard," Gillespie said in Raleigh, according to a written transcript of his remarks on the Republicans' website.
"This is a demonstrably false and malicious charge that would be slanderous under any ordinary circumstance. It's not unusual, however, for Mr. McAuliffe to not tell the truth on national television.'"
During the war in Vietnam, Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard, where he learned to be a fighter pilot. Unlike being in the regular military, he served short stints each month within the continental United States. During his National Guard career, Bush sought and received permission to take part in two political campaigns while serving in Texas -- one in Florida in 1968 and one in Alabama in 1972.
To work on the 1972 campaign, Bush had to arrange a temporary assignment on a National Guard unit in Alabama.
During his 2000 campaign for president, the question arose about whether he actually served in the National Guard in Alabama. The Bush campaign said he did but acknowledged at the time that the records could not be found. McAuliffe resurrected the controversy Sunday.
Kerry himself ducked reporters' questions about the McAuliffe allegations and about Bush's military career as he campaigned in Arizona on Monday.
"I don't know what the facts are with respect to the president's service," Kerry said during a news conference on a Tucson tarmac. "I know issues were raised previously. It's not up to me to talk about them or question them at this point.... It's up to the president and the military to answer those questions."
Asked whether he would make Bush's National Guard record an issue in the general election, Kerry said: "I don't know yet. I haven't made up my mind."
In general, however, he said, "I've never questioned the choices people made about not going to Vietnam."
Bush's National Guard record has become an issue twice in recent days on the campaign trail. Filmmaker Michael Moore called the president a "deserter" at a rally with retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark.
Then, former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland compared Bush's service to Kerry's at a rally last week in Columbia, S.C. Kerry, as a Navy lieutenant in Vietnam, had "felt the sting of battle," Cleland said. Bush, he added, "didn't even complete his tour stateside in the Guard."
In the news conference Monday, Kerry said that Moore's description of Bush had been wrong. "I spoke out against the use of the word 'deserter,' which I thought was inappropriate, wrong, over the top," Kerry said.
He declined to say the same about Cleland's remarks. Pressed by reporters to assess whether Bush had served honorably in the National Guard, Kerry said he could not respond. "I can't because I don't have the facts," he said.