White House Defends Bush's Guard Service During War Feb 3, 6:45 PM (ET) By Adam Entous WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House swung into campaign mode on Tuesday to defend President Bush's record in the Texas Air National Guard far from the battlefields of Vietnam after Democrats accused him of going "AWOL." White House spokesman Scott McClellan denied Democratic charges that Bush shirked his military duties in the early 1970s unlike Democratic presidential front-runner John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran. McClellan called the accusations "shameful" and the "worst of election-year politics." Bush "fulfilled his duties" in the National Guard and was honorably discharged. "The president was proud of his service," McClellan added. The counter-attack came as voters voted in seven states on the biggest day yet of a Democratic presidential race so far dominated by Kerry. Analysts said the unusually blunt response underscored White House concerns that military service could become a campaign issue. Bush stayed out of combat in Vietnam while serving as a pilot in the Air National Guard. Democrats have long challenged Bush's record of attendance in the guard in 1972 when he transferred temporarily to an Alabama unit to work on a political campaign. According to a copy of the National Guard document granting him an "honorable" discharge on Oct. 1, 1973, Bush completed five years and four months of service -- less than the obligatory six years -- before entering Harvard Business School. CENTER STAGE On Sunday, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe thrust the issue to center stage, telling ABC's "This Week" television program that he welcomed a debate on military service if Kerry won the party's presidential nomination. "I look forward to that debate when John Kerry, a war hero with a chest full of medals, is standing next to George Bush, a man who was AWOL in the Alabama National Guard," McAuliffe said. "George Bush never served in our military in our country. He didn't show up when he should have showed up." The accusation that Bush was AWOL, or "absent without leave," stems from charges that he missed required drills in Alabama. The leading Democratic candidates have yet to directly criticize the president's Air National Guard service, although Kerry routinely contrasts Bush's made-for-television landing last year on an aircraft carrier with his own real-life experiences in combat. Asked whether he considered Bush "AWOL" during his service in the National Guard, Kerry told CNN, "It is a question that's been raised and that ought to be answered." But he added: "I spoke out against the use of the word deserters, which I thought was inappropriate ... and over the top." Vice President Dick Cheney obtained deferments from the draft during the Vietnam War. Democratic candidate Howard Dean also missed service in Vietnam -- owing to a bad back, though that did not keep him off the ski slopes. 'NO PLACE IN POLITICS' Without naming McAuliffe, McClellan said "these kinds of attacks have no place in politics and everyone should condemn them." Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot attacked Kerry directly. "To suggest, as Sen. Kerry has, that the military should 'answer questions' about President Bush's honorable discharge is an outrage," he said. Besides his Vietnam combat record, Kerry also has almost two decades of foreign policy experience in the Senate, and Bush's allies concede this could make him a formidable challenger on national security issues. A recent USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup poll had Kerry defeating Bush 53 percent to 46 percent, a lead outside the poll's margin of error.