- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 19, 2004

All the attention paid to the documents that CBS produced in its stories on President Bush’s National Guard service — now regarded nearly universally by other news outlets to be phony — has blunted the issue for the Democrats and distracted the news media and public from Sen. John Kerry’s message, political consultants say.

Republican political strategist Frank Donatelli said the Bush-Cheney campaign and the White House have handled the controversy perfectly, by basically letting the CBS report collapse owing to the work of other journalists.

“If someone else is questioning the credibility of these documents, there’s nothing the White House could have added to that,” Mr. Donatelli said.

Since the Sept. 8 report by Dan Rather on “60 Minutes,” major newspapers across the country have presented evidence that the documents — supposedly written in the early 1970s — were likely produced on a modern word processor.

Mr. Rather all but conceded that finding last week when he interviewed a secretary in the Texas Air National Guard office who believed the documents were phony.

But one organization that didn’t question the CBS story early on was the Democratic National Committee. Chairman Terry McAuliffe cited the Sept. 8 report as proof that Mr. Bush had lied about his service in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War.

And a day before the CBS report, Mr. McAuliffe said that authenticated documents from the Pentagon proved Mr. Bush “did not serve honorably,” and pledged to keep the issue at the forefront “from now until November 2.”

Democratic political consultant Scott Segal said such a strategy goes against the “very good advice” that Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry received from former President Bill Clinton: Stop talking about Vietnam.

That goes for Mr. Bush’s service during that war, too.

“I don’t think this is the kind of issue that undecided voters look toward,” Mr. Segal said.

As for the furor generated by the discredited CBS report itself, that “neutralizes any discussion of the president’s National Guard service, if they were going to make a big play for that,” he said.

While the Kerry campaign has not focused on the president’s National Guard duty for several weeks, the DNC’s attacks have helped keep it in the news.

“The campaign, though, to its credit, is soldiering on and trying to stay on message,” Mr. Segal said.

A Democratic political consultant close to Mr. Kerry’s advisers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, agreed that the CBS story has done nothing positive for the Democrats.

“This story, which has dominated the news for more than a week, isn’t helping Kerry,” the consultant said. “Kerry’s biggest problem is that he hasn’t been able to get his message across — on how he’d do a better job in Iraq, how the Bush economy is leaving many people behind, especially in the swing states.

“Anything that distracts from that message, even if it is juicy and irresistible to [Mr. Kerry’s] supporters, makes that job harder,” he said.

Mr. Donatelli said Mr. Bush’s past campaigns are proof that focusing on this issue has never been a winning strategy for his opponents — stretching all the way back to when he defeated Ann Richards in the Texas gubernatorial race in 1994.

“This really fell flat,” Mr. Donatelli said. “This story has been picked over like a Thanksgiving turkey, and people have already baked this into their opinion of the president.”

He agreed with other campaign consultants that the phony documents story is likely to fade quickly. The only factor that could bring it back is if the source of the forged documents is tied in any way to Mr. Kerry’s campaign.

“If you have eliminated the family as the source, and eliminated the Guard, then you have to look at partisan sources,” Mr. Donatelli said. “If this is traced to Kerry, it would be damaging.”

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