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As questions about his service persist, Bush addresses Guard

LAS VEGAS -- President Bush told members of the National Guard yesterday that he was proud to be one of 19 men who both served in the Guard and became commander-in-chief, even as Democrats mounted new attacks on his record of military service and his more recent handling of the war in Iraq.

Bush made a quick reference to his time as a pilot in the Texas Air National Guard and avoided any mention of questions that have been raised about how he got into the Guard and his performance during his final months of service.

''I am proud to be one of them," Bush said of presidents who had been Guardsmen.

The president focused largely on national security and the war on terrorism, winning applause from thousands of Guard members gathered for their annual convention. He also took a jab at his Democratic rival, John F. Kerry, over what Republicans say are Kerry's shifting positions on Iraq.

''What's critical is that the president of the United States speak clearly and consistently at this time of great threat in our world and not change positions because of expediency or pressure," Bush said.

Hundreds of protesters demonstrated outside the event, echoing criticism from Democrats that Bush has misused the Guard and Reserve to wage war in Iraq.

Democrats used Bush's speech as occasion to release a new advertisement, titled ''Fortunate Son," that pounds away at questions about how Bush made his way into the Guard rather than serving in combat in Vietnam. In the ad, which was produced by the Democratic National Committee, a narrator says, ''For six months in 1972 he failed to perform any Guard service as required. . . . Where was he and why did he miss his physical?"

The ad's assertions that Bush missed a required physical, lost his flight status, did not show up for drills for six months in 1972, and had a supervisor who wrote that he had ''not been observed at this unit" have been established in Globe reporting. An assertion that Bush leapfrogged over a waiting list of 150 applicants when he entered the Guard has been reported on numerous occasions elsewhere, including in a 1999 article in the Los Angeles Times.

Kerry, who is scheduled to speak in the same Las Vegas venue tomorrow, accused Bush of betraying Guard members by stretching their resources past their limits in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nearly half the National Guard has been drawn into active duty since Bush took office, and casualties in Iraq are continuing to mount amid bursts of violence from insurgents who have kept US and Iraqi forces at bay for more than a year. About 40 percent of the forces in Iraq is made up of members of the National Guard and Reserve.

''George W. Bush keeps saying that things are getting better, even when we all know that's just not true," Kerry said in a statement. ''The fact is, no matter what he says, all of us can see for ourselves what's happening in Iraq."

Other Democrats made the subject much more personal. DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe hammered Bush about his service during the Vietnam war, saying the president ''spent his whole life receiving favors and having strings pulled for him."

''While Bush has stubbornly refused to come clean about receiving preferential treatment and not fulfilling his National Guard duty, he has been quick to ask more of today's Guard," McAuliffe said in a statement. ''Bush has employed the greatest mobilization of the Guard and Reserves since World War II -- but has denied them full health care benefits and the proper equipment to [do] their job."

White House aides have repeatedly denied that Bush shirked his Guard duty, noting that he was honorably discharged. Newly released documents, first aired on CBS's ''60 Minutes II" program last week, appeared to question whether he fulfilled the requirements. But the authenticity of those documents has been called into question.

In a radio interview yesterday with an Iowa station, the president's wife, Laura Bush, said she was skeptical of the documents.

''You know, they probably are altered, and they probably are forgeries, and I think that's terrible, really," she said.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the documents ''should be looked into" but did not elaborate. McClellan went on to say that the presidential campaign should not be caught up in events of 30 years ago and instead should focus on the future. Referring to the new advertisement from the DNC, McClellan said it showed Democrats ''are determined to throw the kitchen sink at us because they can't win when the discussion is focused on the issues and the future."

Michael Rezendes of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Anne E. Kornblut can be reached at akornblut@globe.com.

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