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Last Updated: Saturday, 14 February, 2004, 04:31 GMT
Bush's new credibility test
By Rob Watson and Kevin Anderson
BBC correspondents in Washington

President George W Bush, on the defensive as new polls show his popularity and credibility ebbing, released hundreds of pages of documents from his Vietnam-era service in the National Guard.

George W Bush in his Air National Guard days
Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard
It was an attempt to put to rest a controversy that grew out of accusations from senior Democrats that Mr Bush failed to fulfil his duty in the National Guard, a volunteer reserve service.

Polls show that the public, by and large, does not believe that the president's guard service is an election issue.

But this along with questions over use of intelligence in the lead up to the war in Iraq have eroded confidence in President Bush and weakened his chances of re-election in November.

White House rattled

President Bush didn't fight in the Vietnam War. Instead he joined the National Guard. It was seen by many at the time as a way of avoiding going to Vietnam.

But senior democrats have revived allegations that even in the National Guard the president failed to show up for duty.

They have accused him of working on a political campaign when he was supposed to be flying planes.

The White House acknowledges the president was absent for months but insists the president did fulfil his duties pointing to his honourable discharge in 1973.

The White House released the records to counter insinuations in some reports that Mr Bush skipped a flight medical examination in 1972 because he might have something to hide, said White House communications director Dan Bartlett.

That it would go to such lengths is being seen as a sign the White House is badly rattled in the face of the latest public opinion polls suggesting the president's trustworthiness and job approval rating are at an all time low.

And with the president likely to be running against a decorated Vietnam War hero in Senator John Kerry, this clearly a controversy the White House wants to settle soon.

Public untroubled

But poll watchers say that most Americans are only concerned that he received an honourable discharge in October 1973 and are not concerned about the details of his service.

The media is going down a path that the public is not going down
Karlyn Bowman, American Enterprise Institute
This was a media feeding frenzy that would fade in days, they said.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that 66% of the public did not think questions about President Bush's National Guard service was a legitimate campaign issue.

"The media is going down a path that the public is not going down," said Karlyn Bowman a public opinion expert with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

Mr Bush would not win if the question was who was the better soldier 30 years ago in the Vietnam era, Mr Bush or Democratic frontrunner John Kerry.

As Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe said, Mr Kerry, who commanded a Navy swift boat in Vietnam, has a "chest full of medals".

But the question for voters is not who was the better soldier, but who will be the better commander-in-chief, Ms Bowman said.

Credibility on Iraq

The National Guard controversy may feed into public perceptions that Mr Bush comes from privilege and is out of touch, said Richard Eichenberg, who studies public opinion and national security at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

The ABC/Washington Post poll showed that 57% of those polled believe the Mr Bush does not understand the problems of ordinary Americans.

John Kerry in Vietnam
John Kerry has emphasised his military record on the campaign trail
The issue is not so much about whether he was at an Alabama National Guard base on a Saturday in 1973, but whether he jumped to the head of a list for a coveted spot in the guard because of his father's connections, thereby avoiding being sent to Vietnam, Mr Eichenberg said.

But he and the other poll watchers said that this controversy is just one piece of the political debate.

"It is part of a broader debate eroding his credibility," Mr Eichenberg said.

The ABC poll found that 54% of those polled believe administration exaggerated claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

And those who find the president honest and trustworthy have plummeted from 70% before the war in Iraq to 52% now.

Mr Bush's falling credibility and Mr Kerry's war record may help to overcome the Republican's usual advantage on issues of national security, Mr Eichenberg said.

"A war-time president who didn't go to war versus a candidate who did - other things being equal - neutralises President Bush's advantage," he added.

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