Campaign gets dirty as muckrakers turn over Kerry's personal life and Bush troubles return

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The Independent US

The United States election is still almost nine months away. But if recent events are any guide, the campaign already promises to be the dirtiest on record - with much of the muckraking centred not on Iraq, but allegations of sexual infidelity and a war which ended 30 years ago.

This week President George Bush's record in the National Guard during the Vietnam war was submitted to sharp new questioning. Old photos have surfaced of John Kerry - his most likely opponent this autumn - sitting at an anti-Vietnam war rally three rows behind the actress Jane Fonda, a favourite conservative bête noire.

In what may be more than co-incidence, The Harvard Crimson magazine has unearthed an interview Mr Kerry gave the student paper in 1970, urging that US troops be put under the command of the United Nations - again a subject that makes Republicans apoplectic.

Republicans have seized on the remarks by Mr Kerry, then a leading spokesman of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, as proof of the Massachusetts senator's softness on defence. In the interview, Mr Kerry describes himself as "an internationalist" who wanted to see US troops deployed across the world "only at the directive of the UN", and activities by the CIA "almost eliminated". Who is behind this simultaneous unearthing of ancient material is unclear, but political veterans suspect the shadowy hand of the Republican "opposition research" department which has long been amassing information on the Democratic candidates.

Mr Kerry, who spent the day with advisers in Washington before returning to the campaign trail in Wisconsin, must now fend off allegations about his private life. The Drudge Report internet news service - which broke the Monica Lewinsky scandal in January 1998 - claimed that several US news organisations were investigating claims of a relationship between Mr Kerry and an intern. There was no comment from the Kerry camp last night.

Mr Kerry is also under fire for his alleged support for gay marriage. The issue has been thrust centre-stage by the latest ruling of the Supreme Court in Mr Kerry's home state of Massachusetts, that gays were entitled to nothing less.

Republicans hope to turn gay marriage into a classic "wedge issue", splitting liberal Democrats from the blue-collar, socially more conservative, wing of the party - and Mr Bush himself is believed to be about to call for a full-scale amendment of the US constitution, stipulating that marriage cannot be between two people of the same sex.

It has now emerged that Mr Kerry in 2002 opposed an earlier effort to outlaw gay marriage. Mr Kerry now says he supports civil unions between gays, but not marriage.

But Mr Bush is having troubles of his own. The White House release of the President's pay and attendance records during his Guard Service between 1969 and 1973 has not disposed of charges that Mr Bush failed to attend required training sessions in 1972, when he was transferred to Alabama. Yesterday, the White House released records of a dental check up Mr Bush had in Alabama in January 1973. But Democrats say that this proves nothing. The White House, meanwhile, is backing away from an earlier undertaking to release Mr Bush's Guard records in their entirety. Separately, a retired commander of the Texas Guard has complained that Mr Bush's aides went through the records just before Mr Bush embarked on his presidential run in 1998, to make sure that no embarrassing material would surface.

According to The New York Times, the retired officer, Bill Burkett, will claim in a book this week that a Bush aide - Dan Bartlett, who is now Mr Bush's communications director at the White House - ordered that damaging information should be removed from Mr Bush's personnel file. Mr Bartlett denied that there had been any tampering.