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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Democrats Split on Bush Guard Story

Some see rough justice after attacks on Kerry's Vietnam-era record and welcome a comparison, but others say it distracts from pressing issues.

September 12, 2004|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

The renewed controversy over President Bush's National Guard service has opened a fresh divide in the presidential contest -- among Democrats who disputed the wisdom of keeping the 3-decade-old story alive.

Many partisans relish the sight of the White House and Bush aides struggling to answer long-ago questions about Vietnam, after watching Sen. John F. Kerry being forced to defend his combat duty and subsequent antiwar activism.

"If you're going to have Swift Boat Veterans for Truth running around out there on the loose, it's only fair to have Texans for Truth running around out there on the loose," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist, referring to the groups behind anti-Kerry and anti-Bush ads, respectively.

But others worry that the fracas over Bush's service is distracting Democrats and voters alike from more consequential issues, thus hurting Kerry.

"We stand at a disadvantage as a party whenever we talk about military issues, and I think we've seen that in the way we've taken a guy with a Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts and lost that battle to someone who served in the National Guard," said David Doak, a Democratic consultant.

"You've got to do damage control and maybe roll a few grenades under the other guy's tent. But in the larger picture it's a distraction ... to the conversation you want to be having about the issues that are really going to decide the election."

Long-standing questions about Bush's National Guard Service have gained new currency after a series of news reports suggesting he received special treatment. Those allegations, in turn, have been called into doubt by questions about the authenticity of newly surfaced documents.

Kerry so far has avoided the subject, leaving it to surrogates to spotlight the lingering questions about Bush's Guard service. The Democratic National Committee has established a needling name for its publicity effort -- Operation Fortunate Son -- taken from the 1969 antiwar anthem by Creedence Clearwater Revival.

A party spokesman, Jano Carbrera, disagreed with suggestions that talk of Vietnam was distracting from more topical matters, saying "voters are perfectly capable" of focusing on more than one thing at a time.

Some Democrats welcomed the controversy as a fortuitous change of subject after Bush's post-convention "bounce" in polls and the candidates' continued back-and-forth over Iraq.

"At a minimum, George W. Bush and his campaign are not talking about what they want to talk about because they're responding to this," strategist Chris Lehane said.

Still, even before the latest controversy, California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres was weary of all the talk of Vietnam, saying Kerry has "to focus on the swing voters, get to the issues they care about."

Matthew Dowd, a senior strategist for Bush's reelection campaign, suggested the National Guard controversy was old news and the latest developments would end up hurting Kerry more than the president. "When you get behind, like basketball, you start fouling and fans don't like it," Dowd said.

Times staff writer Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.

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