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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Ad Campaign to Question Bush's Time in Guard

September 08, 2004|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Escalating the campaign warfare over the Vietnam era, a new group founded by a veteran Texas Democratic operative will announce today a television ad campaign reprising charges that President Bush failed to perform his service in the Texas Air National Guard while on temporary assignment in Alabama.

The ad, funded by Texans for Truth, features Robert Mintz, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Alabama Air National Guard, who said he never saw Bush while serving in the same unit in 1972.

"It would be impossible to be unseen in a unit of that size," Mintz charged in the ad, which the Texans for Truth group posted on its website Tuesday.

One source familiar with the group's plan said it raised more than $100,000 on Tuesday to air the ad after sending an e-mail solicitation to members of MoveOn.org, a liberal online advocacy group that has been among Bush's staunchest opponents, and DriveDemocracy.org, a spin-off group in Texas.

"The money came in really fast," said the source, who asked not to be identified.

The new ad drive appears in the wake of the advertising assaults on Democratic nominee John F. Kerry from Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a conservative group with strong Republican ties. The group has accused the Democratic nominee of misrepresenting his actions in Vietnam and betraying fellow servicemen by pursuing antiwar activities after leaving the Navy.

The source familiar with Texans for Truth's plans said it was considering running the ad in some of the same markets where the Swift boat group aired, nearly all of them in swing states.

But the source added that the group might also seek to run the ad in states that have suffered disproportionately high levels of casualties in the Iraq war. The group will announce its ad buy at a news conference this morning.

The new anti-Bush ad comes as Kerry allies have escalated their criticism of Bush's service record -- and as both campaigns await a piece from CBS' "60 Minutes" tonight examining Bush's National Guard record.

Texans for Truth was founded last month by Glenn Smith, a longtime Texas Democratic operative who ran gubernatorial campaigns for Ann Richards in 1990 and Tony Sanchez in 2002.

Texans for Truth is a 527 organization, so named for the federal tax code that created it, and is associated with DriveDemocracy.org, a Texas group directed by Smith.

DriveDemocracy was founded last spring with money left over after MoveOn ran a campaign, directed by Smith, opposing ultimately successful Republican efforts to redraw congressional district lines in Texas to help the GOP win more seats.

Steve Schmidt, the deputy communications director for the Bush campaign, said the charges in the new ad about the president's National Guard service had been "totally discredited" and would be rejected by voters.

"His campaign is focused on the past.... The president's campaign is focused on the future," Schmidt said.

The 30-second ad focuses on the controversial period in 1972 when Bush requested a transfer from the Texas Air National Guard to serve with a unit in Alabama while he worked on the Senate campaign of Republican Winton Blount.

Bush received permission to train with the 187th Tactical Reconnaissance Group in Montgomery from September through November 1972.

Ever since 2000, Bush has faced questions of whether he showed up to perform that service. On NBC's "Meet the Press" in February, Bush said charges that he had failed to report for duty were "just wrong."

"There may be no evidence, but I did report, otherwise I wouldn't have been honorably discharged," Bush said. "The military doesn't work that way. I got an honorable discharge, and I did show up in Alabama."

Since then, the White House has pointed to one former member of the unit who said he recalled seeing Bush on the base at the time.

But several other members of the 187th have told reporters they have no recollection of seeing Bush during that period. And it is that charge the new ad highlights.

In the ad, Mintz, the retired lieutenant colonel from the Alabama Air National Guard, said that after the president cited his service in the unit he could not recall seeing him there.

"So I called friends, you know, 'Did you know George served in our unit?' 'Nah, I never saw him there,' " Mintz said in the ad.

The ad closes with text that reads: "George Bush has some explaining to do."

Documents released by the Pentagon last July showed that Bush wasn't paid for the five months in 1972 when he was assigned to the Alabama unit, which suggest he did not show up for duty. But they also indicate he had already accumulated enough credits to meet his obligation for the year.

Critics have previously attacked other aspects of Bush's Vietnam-era service, including that he vaulted over hundreds of other young men waiting for admission to the National Guard and obtained a coveted pilot's slot, despite having fewer qualifications than other applicants and receiving a low score on a pilot aptitude test.

Scrutiny of the president's Air National Guard service continued Tuesday, as the Pentagon released a new round of records to Associated Press. The documents showed that Bush was not with his Texas Guard unit -- the 147th Fighter Interceptor Group -- in 1972 when it joined in a "24-hour active alert mission to safeguard against surprise attack" in the southern United States.

Ben Barnes, the former Texas speaker of the House, recently said he felt "ashamed" of helping Bush and other well-connected young men obtain slots in the Guard. CBS News announced that it would feature an interview with Barnes tonight.

In a preemptive memo to GOP leaders Tuesday night, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie sought to portray Barnes as an unreliable witness and charged that Democrats were "implementing a strategy of vicious personal attacks against the president and vice president."

*

Times staff writers Kathleen Hennessey and James Rainey contributed to this report.

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