WASHINGTON – Seizing on 30-year-old memos and memories, Sen. John Kerry's (search) operatives are painting an unflattering portrait of President Bush as the "fortunate son" who used family connections to dodge the Vietnam War and then lied about it.
But even some sympathetic Democrats say voters won't be easily swayed, and they fear the controversy will deflect attention from Bush's biggest vulnerabilities: the Iraq war and the economy.
The challenge for Kerry is to talk about issues that matter to voters today — health care, education, jobs and the war — while his allies at the Democratic National Committee (search) do the dirty work. The DNC's goal: convince voters that Bush string-pulling in the Texas Air National Guard (search) is part of a pattern of elitism, lies and lack of credibility that stretches to the White House.
"Two things: One, he didn't tell the truth and that's not going to go away," said Howard Wolfson, a strategist dispatched to the DNC by Kerry's campaign to go negative on Bush. "Second, it begins to paint a picture of a very fortunate son who uses connections and pulls strings for special favors. That is a theme running through the man's life."
The DNC has nicknamed its effort "Operation Fortunate Son" after a Creedence Clearwater Revival anti-war anthem from the 1960s. The song speaks of the privileged few, "born silver spoon in hand," who send others to war.
Bush is not the "senator's son" written about in the song, but he's the son of a former president who served in the House during the Vietnam War.
Former Texas House Speaker Ben Barnes, a Kerry supporter, says he helped Bush and the sons of other wealthy families get into the Texas National Guard to avoid serving in Vietnam.
As a young lieutenant, Bush was "talking to someone upstairs" and trying to "get out of coming to drill," according to newly unearthed memos by the late Col. Jerry B. Killian (search), squadron commander for Bush in Texas.
Democrats said the documents prove that Bush lied as president when he said that he did his Guard duty. White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett accused Democrats of reading too much into the memos "of a dead man," and said the bottom line is the president was honorably discharged.
"People formed their opinions of President Bush's service in the National Guard many years ago," Bartlett said. Indeed, the president's Guard service was a campaign issue in 2000 and had little, if any, effect on the results.
This time, Democrats are pressing media organizations to dig deeper while Kerry and his team make a broader argument about Bush's credibility and character. He misled the nation into war against Iraq, Kerry says. There are no weapons of mass destruction, no broad alliance as promised.
Bush promised fiscal discipline but ran up the debt. He promised education reforms but didn't pay for the changes. He promised to lower the price of prescription drugs, but the costs are higher — so say Democrats trying to make 30-year-old records relevant to this year's campaign.
"This is not about George Bush's service. It is about who he is and why he lied and continues to lie today," Wolfson said. "These guys are knee-deep in the big muddy."
Kerry focused on health care Thursday, declining to address the controversy, both in an interview with The Associated Press and when a crowd member mentioned her military service number. "That's something you never forget," Kerry said, prompting another audience member to shout, "George did!"
"Well," Kerry said, "moving on."
Some Democrats wish he would do just that — move on to Iraq, the economy and domestic issues that traditionally favor Democrats. Polls show Bush opening a lead over Kerry nationally and in key states, causing a rash of second-guessing.
Democratic strategist Dane Strother noted that Kerry has sharpened his message in recent days, accusing Bush of squandering money in Iraq that could improve lives at home. "That's a very salient argument," he said, "but it's getting overshadowed by Vietnam."
Other Democrats, including a top Kerry adviser and a Midwest governor, said the strategy, combined with Bush's own negative tactics, could lead undecided voters not to vote — and most of them lean toward Kerry.
The senior Democrats spoke on condition of anonymity, not wanting to upset Kerry. Voters are not so shy.
"I'm not interested in Bush's military service or what he did back when," said Cara Easterly, a 37-year-old health care worker in Everett, Wash. The undecided voter said, "I only want to know how they're going to take care of us."
Sue Docekal, 49, a graphics artist in Seattle, said Bush "is clearly a hypocrite" on the Guard issues, "but what's that got to do with my vote?"