Focus: Bush warfare

Just when John Kerry looked like the man the Democrats would choose to run for president, a scandal emerged - but were the rumours of an affair true or just Republican mud-slinging? As George Bush is forced to defend his conduct during the Vietnam War, David Usborne reports on a week in which the fight for the White House got dirty
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The Independent US

Senator John Kerry awoke last Monday filled with confidence. His express train towards the Democratic nomination for president was gaining speed after his weekend win in the crucial state of Michigan, and the signs looked good for two more primary votes coming on Tuesday in Tennessee and Virginia. Best of all, his campaign managers had promised him two days off mid-week to relax with his wife.

He cannot have minded that a ruckus about President George Bush's alleged failure to show up for service in the National Guard in Alabama in 1972 and 1973 seemed, if anything, to be escalating. As his whole campaign team knew, this was a perfect kind of scandal for Senator Kerry, if it was true. At the time of the Vietnam War, serving (or not serving) in the Guard was a way to avoid fighting abroad. Kerry, on the other hand, was a decorated Vietnam War hero.

As predicted by the polls, Kerry did handsomely in the two southern states on Tuesday, easily outstripping the two candidates who come from the region, General Wesley Clark and Senator John Edwards. His twin victories, he said, proved he was a candidate with support all across the nation.

And so, on Wednesday, he went to his mansion in Beacon Hill, Boston, for 48 hours of rest and recreation with Teresa Heinz, the multi-millionaire heiress to whom he was married in 1995. It was meant to be a time of domestic relaxation ahead of his next foray out into the field: to Wisconsin on Friday, which votes this Tuesday, then immediately on to Nevada, which had its primary yesterday.

Wednesday was undoubtedly sweet. News came through that General Clark was withdrawing from the race. That left only two vaguely serious rivals to deal with: Howard Dean of Vermont and Senator Edwards of North Carolina. Every pundit in the country was happily asserting that the battle for the Democratic nomination was all but over. The presidential race would be Bush vs Kerry.

But what were the conversations like around the Kerry-Heinz kitchen table on Thursday? At some point during the day the Senator's wife must have heard of something altogether less welcome in the air. A well-known conservative tipster, Matt Drudge, was breathlessly implying on his widely read website that Mr Kerry was at risk from a sensational sex scandal. Teresa, 65, is no shrinking violet and is well known for speaking up when something is on her mind. Previously married to Senator John Heinz, who died in a helicopter crash in 1991, she once warned her first husband about what would happen if he ever strayed. "I'll maim you. Not kill you, just maim you," she informed him at the time of their marriage.

Drudge is a dangerous man, at least for Democrats. His notoriety and, indeed, the continuing viability of his website are based entirely on the fact that that it was he who first revealed that Newsweek magazine was investigating a story involving former President Bill Clinton and an unnamed intern at the White House. The intern, of course, turned out to be Monica Lewinsky and the ensuing national drama nearly drove Mr Clinton from office. No wonder, then, that his postings on Thursday caused a stir in the Kerry campaign team and among grass-roots Democrats. Could it be possible that the candidate was poised to self-destruct, just as his status as front-runner in this year's race was becoming unassailable?

The Lewinsky saga proved to have legs - would this one? Drudge's musings were absurdly short on detail or anything approaching convincing evidence. The story seemed to be that sometime in 2000, Kerry had attempted to seduce a young woman - a freelance reporter, not an intern - and that she had recently left the US for Africa on Kerry's urgings. There was no name and no word from the woman in question. But the report was peppered with tantalising details, including an assertion that General Clark had told reporters earlier in the week he thought Kerry was about to "implode" because of something in his past.

Drudge attempted to lend his report credibility by tracking the reaction of other media organisations to his tawdry tale. Predictably it was papers abroad - notably conservative titles in Britain - that were the first to run with the unsubstantiated scuttlebutt. The Sun came up with a name, and by yesterday had a picture of the supposed target of Kerry's affections. The "serious" press in America is well known to be cautious with material of this kind, but it was surely not promising for Drudge that still yesterday papers such as The New York Times were remaining entirely silent on the affair. The New York tabloids climbed on board, sort of. "It's Not True" was the banner front-page headline yesterday in the New York Post, owned by Rupert Murdoch who is also proprietor of The Sun.

It was Kerry himself who gave reporters the excuse to get started with the story. On Fri-day, as he was emerging from Boston to return to the stump, he found himself compelled to say something. He started on the nationally syndicated radio show of Don Imus, who had already made clear he supported Kerry. Would the Senator soon be forced to leap off the election bandwagon?

"No, sir," was the candidate's reply. "No sprained ankles for you." When Imus asked flatly if the allegation was true, Kerry insisted: "There's nothing to report. There's nothing to talk about. I'm not worried about it - no. The answer is no." And there was a bit more from him later in the day when reporters tried the same question. "I just deny it categorically. It's rumour. It's untrue. Period." He would not, he said, address the matter ever again.

He hopes. Drudge suggested that Dean, who just weeks ago was being trumpeted as the man Democrats would pick to take on Bush but who has yet to win a single primary, had reversed an earlier promise to pull out of the race if he does not win in Wisconsin on Tuesday. The implication is that Dean, and maybe others, think the allegation is serious enough that it could derail the Kerry train entirely. The notion has sent shudders through the entire Democratic Party, which had been celebrating the fact that in this year's newly compressed primary season its nominee for the election had emerged so quickly and more or less unscathed.

America has been here before, of course, even before the Lewinsky débâcle. It was the unfriendly forces of the right that nearly sabotaged the candidacy of Bill Clinton in 1992. The Gennifer Flowers scandal erupted earlier in the process, just before the first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire. There was no internet then, of course, and no Drudge. The muckraking was done in those days by the supermarket tabloids (in that case The Star closely followed by The National Enquirer). The Flowers story had all the hallmarks of untruthful Republican dirty tricks, but it did gain traction very fast, with accumulating evidence suggesting that there had indeed been a liaison between the former cabaret singer and the then Governor of Arkansas. Clinton and his wife, the now Senator Hillary Clinton, were forced to go on national television to admit that their marriage had hit some nasty bumps.

Are we about to witness a similar prime-time scene between John and Teresa? From all we know of Kerry's outspoken wife, it is hard to conceive of her holding his hand before the cameras and saying that any indiscretion that may have occurred has been long forgiven. Might we instead be treated with the promised maiming on prime-time television? The answer is that none of this is likely to happen unless there is more to the story than Drudge has so far delivered. Flowers accused Clinton flat out. We have not even heard a peep from Kerry's alleged mystery woman.

What this mini-storm does signal, however, is that this campaign - as almost always - is about to get filthy. Surely more mud is coming Kerry's way. General Clark said as much on Friday when he endorsed his erstwhile rival. "He'll stand up to the Republican attack dogs and send them home licking their wounds," he declared.

Last week, we saw a Bush campaign email attacking Kerry for alleged hypocrisy in declaring his determination to stand up to special interests in Washington, arguing that the candidate has pandered to lobbyists more than anyone else on Capitol Hill. And Republicans were circulating photographs of Kerry sitting near Jane Fonda at an anti-Vietnam rally 30 years ago.

Bush, meanwhile, is struggling to end the National Guard flap. On Friday, the White House had released

documents purporting to prove that he had indeed shown up for duty. But Democrats said the papers did nothing more than show that George Bush Jnr had his teeth checked in Alabama during the period in question.

Kerry himself has remained relatively quiet on the question of Bush's service, leaving others in the party to keep the affair alive. But he made a pledge last week that if the Republicans insist on making this campaign nasty, he will not flinch from the fight. "I'll do everything I can when the Republican mean machine cranks up their attacks," he said. Sit tight then, America. This is likely to be a bruising ride.