RICHMOND, Va. – John Kerry (search), a decorated Vietnam veteran and Democratic presidential front-runner, questioned Sunday whether President Bush had fulfilled his Vietnam-era commitment to the National Guard (search).
"Just because you get an honorable discharge does not in fact answer that question," the Massachusetts senator said.
Kerry insisted he was not making a political issue of Bush's Vietnam-era service, saying he had no trouble with the "many people" like Bush who served in the Guard to reduce the odds of seeing combat in Vietnam (search).
But he responded sharply to Bush's claim in a nationally televised interview that his honorable discharge from the National Guard should answer lingering questions about the president's service.
"The issue here, as I have heard it raised, is was he present and active on duty in Alabama at the times he was supposed to be? I don't have the answer to that question," said Kerry, who won three Purple Hearts, one Bronze star and one Silver star in Vietnam.
He commented at a news conference with Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, whose endorsement is the latest piece in Kerry's drive to unite the Democratic Party behind a candidacy that has dominated primary season contests thus far.
Kerry, Warner and their wives watched the NBC interview with Bush, then emerged from the governor's mansion so Kerry could accuse the president of "telling the American people stories" about Iraq. Kerry said Bush's assertion in the interview that Saddam Hussein had the ability to produce deadly weapons "is a far cry from what the president and his administration told the people in 2002."
Kerry hopes Warner's endorsement helps him Tuesday, when Virginia and Tennessee Democrats vote for the party's presidential nominee. Chief rivals John Edwards and Wesley Clark, both Southerners, must win Tuesday or face questions about their viability.
Growing more comfortable each day in the front-runner's pose, Kerry never mentioned his Democratic rivals but focused instead on Bush as he campaigned throughout the state
"This is a White House of facades," Kerry said in Chesapeake, Va., to a rally of at least 1,000, many of them chanting, "No more Bush! No more Bush! No more Bush!"
"This is a White House of photo opportunities. This is the biggest say-anything-do-another administration that I've ever seen in all the time I've been in public life," the senator said.
In Richmond, he fielded questions about Bush's obligations to the Texas Air National Guard and to an Alabama unit that took him in temporarily while he worked on a political campaign.
"I have always honored and I will always honor anybody who serves anywhere," Kerry said. "I've said since the day I came back from Vietnam that 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."
"I honor that service, but that's not the issue here," he said.
In the "Meet the Press" interview, Bush dismissed Democratic criticism of his Guard record. "Political season is here," he said. Republicans have suggested that any criticism of Bush is a slight against the National Guard. Kerry objected to that notion.
"Today's Guard is a very different Guard from the one that existed in 1968, `67 and `69. Anybody who lived in those periods of time will tell you that there were many people who chose to go to the Guard because the odds of being called up and going to Vietnam were very low. And that's just the truth. That's just the way it was back then. That's not the way it is today," Kerry said.
Kerry said it was OK to choose service in the Guard over service in Vietnam, "but when you make your choice, people have an obligation to at least live out the choice they make."
He walked away without saying whether Bush lived out his choice, saying it is up to the media "and other people" to decide whether Bush's records need reviewing.
Later, at a black church, Kerry said there should be a separation of church and state in America "but not in our lives."
Kerry has talked about faith more often on the campaign trail as he looks ahead to a potential general election campaign against a president who talks openly about God and religion. Kerry quoted scripture and former President Kennedy to assert that God's work "must truly be our own."