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White House, GOP defend Bush's military record

RNC chief: Allegations that Bush was AWOL 'flat wrong'

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House and the head of the Republican Party denounced renewed questions about President Bush's military service record Tuesday, with GOP chief Ed Gillespie calling allegations that Bush skipped National Guard drills "flat wrong."

Gillespie called his Democratic counterpart, Terry McAuliffe, "the John Wilkes Booth of presidential character assassination" for suggesting Bush was absent without leave from his Air National Guard service in 1972 and 1973.

"Terry McAuliffe is flat wrong and slanderous when he says the president was AWOL," Gillespie told CNN.

Questions about whether Bush attended the required drills for the Guard, which he joined at the height of the Vietnam War, first surfaced in a Boston Globe report during the 2000 presidential campaign.

The newspaper cited documents from Bush's military records and interviews with some of his former commanders to conclude that Bush failed to report for required drills between May 1, 1972, and April 30, 1973.

Sunday, McAuliffe said Democrats would raise the issue if Republicans tried to question the patriotism of their eventual nominee. The current front-runner, Sen. John

Kerry, is a decorated Vietnam veteran.

"I look forward to that debate, when John Kerry, a war hero with a chest full of medals, is standing next to George Bush, a man who was AWOL," McAuliffe said.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Bush fulfilled his duties and received an honorable discharge. He called the allegations "outrageous and baseless" Tuesday.

"It was a shame that this issue was brought up four years ago, during the campaign, and it is a shame that it is being brought up again," McClellan said.

During part of the time in question, Bush, who was trained as a fighter pilot, was in Alabama to work on a Senate campaign. The Globe reported that a missed annual flight exam during that time got him suspended from flying for the rest of his term of service.

The New York Times later said a torn and undated document with Bush's Social Security number -- the name was torn off -- proved that Bush had been performing duties between November 1972 and July 1973. But a performance review from his commanding officers for that period stated that Bush had "not been observed" at the Texas base where he was assigned in the previous year.

Both the White House and the Bush campaign had been reluctant to respond to Democratic criticism against the president from the campaign trail, generally calling it partisan rhetoric unworthy of a response.

Aides are responding now partly because the campaign season is heating up, but also because of the subject matter: The president's re-election campaign will be rooted in national security and the president's stewardship as commander-in-chief.

Monday, Kerry declined to comment on the issue.

"I don't what the facts are with respect to the president's service," he told reporters in Tucson, Arizona. "I know issues were raised previously. It's not up to me to talk about them or to question at this point. I just don't even know what the facts are. But I think it's up to the president and the military to answer those questions."

Asked if he thought it an appropriate issue for general election campaign, Kerry said, "I have not made up my mind."

But Rep. Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina congressman who is backing the Massachusetts senator, said Democrats failed to press the issue in 2000 and "we're not going to let it ride this time."

"That issue is going to dog him," Clyburn said. "Where was he for a year? I don't know. Nobody else seems to know."

Gillespie last week attacked Kerry's voting record on national security issues but took pains to say Kerry -- a decorated Navy officer in Vietnam who became an anti-war leader after returning home -- had served honorably.

"What I said is demonstrably true. The record and votes that I cited on behalf of Senator Kerry are easy to cite and check," Gillespie said. "President Bush's record of honorable discharge from the National Guard is also just as easy to check. This kind of political discourse is reprehensible."

-- CNN White House Correspondent Dana Bash and Producer Megan Shattuck contributed to this report.

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