PEMBROKE, N.H. – Wesley Clark (search) suggested Saturday that questions remain about President Bush's Vietnam-era service in the Texas Air National Guard, but the retired general stopped short of endorsing a comment by actor-director Michael Moore (search) that Bush was "a deserter."
Moore, a Clark supporter, introduced the Democratic presidential nominee at a campaign rally here by saying he looked forward to debates between Clark, if he wins the Democratic nomination, and Bush.
"I want to see that debate: the general versus the deserter," Moore said to enthusiastic applause at a packed rally in a high-school gymnasium, reiterating a line he uses frequently.
Clark, asked later by reporters if he agreed with Moore's characterization of Bush as a "deserter," said: "I've heard those charges. I don't know whether they're established or not. He was never prosecuted for it. The question in this election is can we bring a higher standard of leadership to America."
The exchange recalled a controversy that was an element of the 2000 presidential campaign.
Bush served as a pilot in the Texas Air National Guard (search) from May 1968 to October 1973, mostly flying F-102 fighter interceptors. He did not go to Vietnam.
Bush spent most of his time in the Guard based near Houston, but in May 1972 he received a three-month assignment in Alabama with the 187th Tactical Recon Unit in Montgomery while he worked on a political campaign in the state.
Retired Gen. William Turnipseed (search), a commander at the Alabama base, said during the 2000 presidential campaign that he never saw Bush appear for duty for that unit's drills. Bush maintains he was there, but records have never been produced to document that Bush was there.
At a news conference after the rally, Clark insisted, "I'm not going to get into the issues of what George W. Bush did or didn't do in the past."
But he also declined to criticize Moore's "deserter" remarks.
"I'm delighted with Michael Moore, I really appreciate his support, he's a fantastic leader. I thank him tremendously for being here."
Clark was the only Democratic presidential candidate campaigning in New Hampshire on Saturday. Most of his rivals were in Iowa. Clark, a late entry, decided to skip Iowa.
In New Hampshire, his ratings in polls were increasing, putting him within striking distance of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who remained the front-runner here.
Earlier, in Laconia, in the lake region of central New Hampshire, Clark said that one reason New Hampshire property taxes are high is the state has no income or general sales tax.
"Some of the responsibility for your high property taxes is a function of your state government and leadership in the state," Clark said in response to a question at a campaign stop.
High property taxes are a perennial political issue in New Hampshire, which holds the first presidential primary Jan. 27. Iowa's contest on Monday involves caucuses, rather than a primary.
In a brief interview after his appearance in Laconia, Clark said he did not intend his remarks as criticism of New Hampshire's tax system, which he said is the responsibility of the state's lawmakers and voters.
"I'm not passing judgment on it one way or another," he said.
Clark was responding to a teacher who complained that underfunding of the federal No Child Left Behind Act was driving up local property taxes. Clark said he would fully fund the act and reform it, reducing the financial burden on communities.
"To be honest with you, in New Hampshire you don't have a sales tax for most of your purchases, and you don't have an income tax as most states do," he said to a large round of applause.
Only New Hampshire and Alaska have neither general sales nor income taxes, and Alaska has substantial oil revenues.