Wednesday, September 15, 2004

LAS VEGAS — President Bush, who is being hammered by renewed questions over his service in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War, received an enthusiastic response to his address yesterday to the National Guard Association.

Speaking at the NGA’s 126th annual convention, Mr. Bush said he is “proud” to be the 19th former guardsman to become president.

Prompting one of many standing ovations from the crowd, Mr. Bush saluted Guard and Reserve troops for their service in Afghanistan and Iraq — a deployment many in the room had experienced.

“I am proud to be their commander in chief, and I respect and honor all of those who serve in the United States Armed Forces — active, Guard and Reserve,” Mr. Bush said.

Supporters of Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry have launched “Operation Fortunate Son,” attempting to paint Mr. Bush as a man who used his family’s influence to leapfrog over others to obtain a spot in the National Guard to avoid combat duty in Vietnam.

The Democrats also accuse Mr. Bush of shirking his duty in the Guard by failing to get a required physical to fly and not showing up for drills when he transferred to an Alabama unit in 1972.

The White House has maintained that Mr. Bush did not take his physical because after three years of flying F-102 fighter jets in Texas, he was moving to a nonflying post in Alabama. Mr. Bush was honorably discharged from the Guard in 1973, a fact that the administration and the president’s campaign says closes the controversy.

“‘Fortunate Son’ was the name of a book written in the 2000 campaign by an ex-convict who was widely discredited,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday. “And I think it just shows the Democrats and the Kerry campaign are determined to throw the kitchen sink at us because they can’t win when the discussion is focused on the issues and the future.

“They are resorting to recycled attacks that have come up every time the president runs for election,” he said.

Meanwhile, NBC News and CBS News demanded yesterday that the Democratic National Committee remove network footage from the DNC’s latest ad attacking Mr. Bush’s Guard service.

NBC said it “does not authorize its copyrighted footage to be used for partisan political purposes.” CBS spokeswoman Sandy Genelius told the Weekly Standard yesterday that “we do not want them to use the video and we are taking it up with them.”

The CBS footage was from a “60 Minutes” interview last week with former Texas Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes — a major campaign donor to Mr. Kerry and other Democrats — who said he helped Mr. Bush get into the Guard.

DNC spokesman Jano Cabrera said yesterday that the committee is “looking at” the news organizations’ requests.

While the DNC drives questions about Mr. Bush’s Guard service, Mr. Kerry is focused on criticizing the president’s policy.

Speaking at a town hall in Toledo, Ohio, Mr. Kerry said Mr. Bush “glosses over Iraq” in his remarks.

“You know and I know, Americans know and the world knows … that the situation in Iraq is worse, not better — that whole parts of Iraq are in the control of terrorists, jihadists and insurgents, and they weren’t before, that our troops are overextended; the National Guard and Reserve, overextended,” Mr. Kerry said.

“This president has not done what’s necessary to fight the most effective war on terror,” he said.

Mr. Kerry will address the NGA tomorrow. His actions as a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War in the early 1970s prompted a few members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars to turn their backs on him when he addressed them last month.

Yesterday, 20 Republican congressmen who served in the Guard signed a letter demanding that Mr. Kerry “immediately apologize for comments attacking the honorable service of those in the National Guard.”

“When Senator Kerry attacks President Bush’s National Guard record as a refusal to serve in the U.S. military, he is degrading the commitment of all the proud men and women who have served and are serving today,” said Rep. Joe Wilson, South Carolina Republican. “We demand that Senator Kerry cease his attacks and apologize for his comments.”

Capt. Pat Campos, a member of the New Mexico Army National Guard, said he doesn’t expect Mr. Kerry to be received as warmly as Mr. Bush was at the convention.

“[Mr. Bush] is always a very enthusiastic and steady leader, one that we need right now,” said Capt. Campos, who served in Iraq for 15 months. “He’s our commander in chief. He knows that we perform as well as the active-duty guys, or even better.”

Capt. Campos said he has met both presidential candidates and has decided to support Mr. Bush.

“To me, Bush is just more serious about fighting terrorism,” Capt. Campos said. “I saw Bush in Iraq. I didn’t see Kerry in Iraq.”

Maj. Bill Crane, a member of the West Virginia Army National Guard, said most Guard members he has spoken to don’t think much of the Democrats’ criticism of Mr. Bush’s service.

“There is always going to be controversy when you get into the campaign season. Actions speak louder than words,” Maj. Crane said, referring to what he described as Mr. Bush’s strong performance in the war on terror.

Mr. Bush told the NGA audience that he realizes that “this time of call-ups, of alerts, and mobilizations, and deployments has been difficult for Guard members and their families and employers.”

“When our nation must call on you, we owe you some things in return,” he said, promising to provide guardsmen with at least a 30-day notice before mobilization as well as to cut down on repeat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more health and housing benefits for those who served in battle.

The president also touched on politics in his speech, referring to Mr. Kerry’s vote for the war in Iraq, but against a bill that would supply arms, armor and other support. Mr. Bush also criticized Mr. Kerry’s recent statements that the administration is spending too much money in Iraq. Last summer, the Democrat said Mr. Bush wasn’t spending enough money there.

“What’s critical is that the president of the United States speak clearly and consistently at this time of great threat in our world, and not change positions because of expediency or pressure,” Mr. Bush said. “Our troops, our friends and allies, and our enemies must know where America stands and that America will stand firm. We cannot waver, we cannot waver because our enemies will not waver.”

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report from Washington.

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