updated 2/3/2004 5:50:20 PM ET 2004-02-03T22:50:20

The White House struck back Tuesday at Democratic critics questioning President Bush’s record of military service at the height of the Vietnam War, saying the issue “represents the worst of election year politics.”

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“It is outrageous and baseless,” presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said in response to suggestions that Bush shirked his military duties when he was in the Texas Air National Guard in 1972.

Military service has emerged as an issue in the campaign for the White House. Sen. John Kerry, the front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, and retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark are decorated veterans and remind campaign audiences of their service.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said Bush was “AWOL” during the Vietnam conflict, while former Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., has criticized Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard. Clark has criticized Bush for his remark challenging enemy forces to “bring ’em on” earlier in postwar Iraq.

Bush was a pilot in the Texas Guard during Vietnam but never flew in battle. “Only someone who hasn’t seen war firsthand would ever say anything as fatuous as ‘bring ’em on,”’ Clark said earlier in the campaign.

Responding to Bush’s critics, McClellan said: “The president fulfilled his duties. That’s why he was honorably discharged.”

“These kinds of attacks have no place in politics, and everyone should condemn them,” McClellan said.

Short on experience
Bush spent most of his time in the Guard based near Houston, but in May 1972 he received a three-month assignment in Alabama so he could work on a political campaign.

While serving as political director of the Senate campaign of Winton “Red” Blount, a family friend, he was ordered to report for duty at the 187th Tactical Recon Unit in Montgomery, Ala. The 187th did not fly F-102s, so Bush did not go to the base as a pilot. After missing a required physical exam and being out of the cockpit so long, he lost his flight credentials in Alabama.

Retired Gen. William Turnipseed, a commander at the base, said during the 2000 campaign he never saw Bush appear for duty. Bush, however, says he remembers meeting Turnipseed and performing drills at the base.

Bush’s campaign staff searched for records that would show he was actually there but concluded none of those records survived.

Bush said in his autobiography that he and a friend, Fred Bailey, tried to join a program called Palace Alert that rotated National Guard pilots into Vietnam.

A colonel told them only a few more pilots would go, and “Fred and I had not logged enough hours to participate,” Bush wrote.

The Republican National Committee on Tuesday released excerpts of an interview in which Sen. John McCain, a Navy pilot who was held as a POW in Vietnam for more than five years, defended Bush. McCain was Bush’s chief rival for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination.

“Everything that I’ve heard — every bit of information I’ve ever heard, I never got into it because I wasn’t that interested — is that he served honorably and well. And I assume that to be the case,” McCain said on MSNBC.

Asked about McAuliffe’s charge that Bush was “AWOL” during the war, McCain said: “Well, but that charge was never proven.”

“I don’t know,” McCain said. “You know, all is fair in love and war, and maybe they’ll have to answer those questions again.”

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