Democrats unleashed a multi-front attack yesterday on President Bush's National Guard service, as the two political parties escalated a deeply personal fight over the Vietnam War-era activities of both presidential candidates.
The Democratic National Committee -- with the support of John F. Kerry's top campaign advisers -- joined several liberal groups in asserting that Bush lied about fulfilling his National Guard duties and exploited family ties to dodge combat during the Vietnam War. The DNC is lining up veterans to condemn Bush's action, while a group called Texans for Truth will air a new ad Monday alleging that Bush failed to show up for guard duty. "The president lied when he said he did not receive preferential treatment and when he said he fulfilled his duty," the DNC's Howard Wolfson said.
Republicans are planning to fire back with a more intense attack on Kerry's antiwar protests during the early 1970s, when he conveyed stories of atrocities by U.S. troops to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and tossed war ribbons at the White House lawn.
The anti-Kerry Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is spending nearly $700,000 on a new ad that asks, "How can the man who renounced his country's symbols now be trusted?" House Republicans are stepping up the criticism of Kerry after four lawmakers viewed a new documentary by POWs that blames Kerry's words for years of emotional and physical torture. "It's pretty powerful," said Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) after viewing the film.
The effort is spreading to the States. Pollster Frank Luntz recently told an audience of Ohio GOP activists that the allegation that Kerry "betrayed" his country has moved undecided voters to Bush. Using the word "betrayal" will sway voters, he told them.
This comes as controversy erupted over the authenticity of the documents unearthed by CBS News. The papers raise doubts about whether Bush fulfilled his obligations to the Texas Air National Guard.
With a new Washington Post-ABC News poll showing Bush opening a nine-percentage-point lead after months of negative attacks on Kerry, each side is calculating it can damage its political opponent by rehashing 30-year-old controversies to sully his service, character and honesty. Strategists for Kerry and Bush privately say that a key to winning is raising serious questions about the trustworthiness of their opponent as a way of discrediting his policies, promises and capacity to govern at a time of terrorist threats.
In many ways, the campaigns and political parties are focusing more attention on long-ago events than on the mounting death toll in Iraq, the rising deficits and the persistent unemployment back home. Kerry's drop in the polls, which both sides attribute to attacks on his Vietnam service and protests afterward, has only served to encourage Republicans and Democrats alike to go negative, they say.
Bush officials say that most voters hold firm views about the president and that nothing about the distant past will change their minds.
But GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio said Bush could be damaged if he is caught -- or perceived to be caught -- in a lie. Fabrizio's polling found that the anti-Kerry ads in August did considerable harm to the Democratic nominee. "If Democrats can create the same doubt about Bush in the eyes of voters, it will hurt Bush," he said.
Kerry is trying to keep a safe public distance from the attacks, aides say, although in a midnight speech in Ohio minutes after Bush concluded his convention speech a week ago, Kerry went after Bush for his National Guard service and Vice President Cheney for not serving at all.
Many Democrats say Kerry should leave the discussion of Bush's guard record to party officials, including DNC Chairman Terence R. McAuliffe, who said at news conference yesterday: "George W. Bush's cover story on his National Guard service is rapidly unraveling."
Texans for Truth, which helped ignite the renewed controversy over Bush's service in the Air National Guard, is run by Democratic consultant Glenn W. Smith. The anti-Bush group MoveOn.org has helped finance his effort.
In a pattern similar to the initially modest expenditure of $500,000 by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Smith's Texans for Truth has received free television coverage across the country after investing just $110,000 in ads in five cities. The ads are not even scheduled to run until Monday.
Smith, 50, a former political reporter for the Houston Chronicle and the Houston Post, worked for a number of Democratic candidates over the past decade. In this election cycle, he has worked with MoveOn.org. With a grant from MoveOn, Smith set up DriveDemocracy.org, which initially fought GOP efforts to draw new lines for Texas congressional districts. Smith has raised money for Texans for Truth using both DriveDemocracy's donor lists and MoveOn.org's lists of Texas contributors.
Smith said that, as of yesterday, he had raised $400,000 from 5,800 donors, all small contributions except for one $100,000 gift from Hollywood producer-writer Dan O'Keefe. The group's ad consists entirely of former Air National Guardsman Bob Mintz -- who was in the same unit Bush was assigned to in Alabama -- talking on camera. Mintz says on camera that he sought out Bush but could never find him in the relatively small unit.
Smith said he found Mintz by reading an alternative weekly, the Memphis Flyer, which ran a long article on Mintz's inability to find Bush during his service. Mintz is now a pilot for Federal Express and, on a layover in Austin, Smith interviewed him on camera.
The seeds of the GOP campaign were planted last week in New York, where former president George H.W. Bush, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and several other prominent Republicans said Kerry's protest activities are fair game. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which has raised nearly $4 million, is zeroing in on Kerry's tossing of his war ribbons, officials will the group say. The ad will air on national cable television.
Buyer, who viewed the documentary made by POWs with a group of 17 veterans who spent as many as seven years in captivity, said House Republicans are going to turn up the heat after watching the film. Luntz, who conducted focus groups in several battleground states for MSNBC, found this line of attack could prove effective. Fabrizio disagreed. "The Swift boat stuff has kind of run its course," he said.
Staff writers Paul Farhi, Lois Romano and Dale Russakoff contributed to this report.