With the general out of the race, November's election is shaping up as a contest between a couple of lieutenants-and military service could be one of the defining issues of the campaign.
On Feb. 10, the White House released under pressure payroll records for President Bush's service in the National Guard. Aides had hoped the release would quell a growing controversy over Mr. Bush's whereabouts during the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, the president's likely challenger continued stumping for votes with his "Band of Brothers," a group of Vietnam veterans who vouched at every stop for John Kerry's patriotism and heroism.
With polls showing increasing skepticism over America's role in Iraq, questions about the candidates' military expertise-much less their own military service-might blunt the Republicans' natural advantage on national-security issues. More than that, by putting a decorated war hero at the top of their ticket, Democratic strategists hope they can overtake the Republicans' traditional "strong-on-defense" role.
But that's only part of the plan. To gain traction on national defense, Democrats also have to show that Republicans-in particular the Republican president-can't be trusted on the issue. Their weapon is a 1973 personnel report, first circulated during the 2000 presidential campaign, in which Mr. Bush's commanding officer said he could not evaluate the young first lieutenant because he had not seen him during the previous year.
Although the charges were answered to the satisfaction of most voters three years ago, Democrats saw an opportunity to tarnish the president's record as commander-in-chief. Liberal filmmaker Michael Moore, always a loose cannon, fired the first volley when he called Mr. Bush a "deserter" who hadn't fully served his time in Alabama, let alone the killing fields of Southeast Asia. Gen. Wesley Clark distanced himself from his supporter's comments, but DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe picked up the attack, saying Mr. Bush went "AWOL" during his service.
That led to a rare presidential appearance on Meet the Press on Feb. 8, where Mr. Bush said he was proud of his National Guard service. Two days later, the White House released payroll records showing he was paid for his Guard service in 1972 and 1973, the years in question.
"These documents make it very clear that the president of the United States fulfilled his duties," Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said repeatedly. "When you serve, you are paid for that service, and these documents outline the days he was paid."
Critics weren't satisfied, however. They insisted that pay stubs don't necessarily mean a soldier actually reported for work, and they found it suspicious that the White House was unable to locate any other Guardsmen who could remember serving with Mr. Bush during the period in question.
Mr. Kerry tried to appear above the fray while still taking advantage of it. Although he insisted that the president's decision to join the National Guard was honorable, Sen. Kerry nevertheless implied that such service was little different from draft-dodging: "It was not an issue to me if somebody chose to go to Canada, or to go to jail, or to be a conscientious objector, or to serve in the National Guard or elsewhere," he said. "I honor that service."
If, as expected, Sen. Kerry emerges as the Democratic nominee, he likely won't hesitate to criticize the president's wartime duty more directly. There is plenty of precedent: During the 2000 campaign, when Al Gore needed a war hero to raise questions about Mr. Bush's credentials for the job of commander-in-chief, it was Sen. Kerry who called up reporters to criticize the Republican's "level of experience" in the National Guard.
That level of experience in tough campaigning should serve Sen. Kerry well in the bruising election to come.