The Democratic primaries aren’t over yet, but it’s already boiled down to a two-man race: John F. Kerry vs. George W. Bush. And the campaign has already generated one red-hot issue: Did National Guardsman George Bush fail to show up for duty?

The question was first raised in 2000 by the Boston Globe. But Al Gore never pursued it, and neither did the networks, who treated Bush with a wet kiss. But the issue has suddenly resurfaced – with former Sen. Max Cleland, a Kerry supporter, accusing Bush of being “AWOL.”

So what’s the answer? Was he AWOL or not? The truth is, we don’t know for sure. But there’s lots of evidence he was. And the White House can’t produce any evidence he wasn’t.

Here’s what we know: In 1968, as a Congressman’s son, young George Bush was able to get a rare slot in the Texas Air National Guard, and thus escape service in Vietnam. He was accepted for pilot training, even though he scored only 25 percent on the aptitude test, the lowest acceptable grade.

In May 1972, Bush was permitted to transfer to the Alabama National Guard in order to work on the U.S. Senate campaign of Republican Winton Blount. Now stop right there. We taxpayers pay to train him as a fighter pilot and he’s assigned to work in a Senate campaign? How many Guardsmen in Iraq today would like that cushy assignment? And how many do you think would get it?

While politicking in Alabama, Bush was required to attend drills with two different units. There is no record he ever showed up. Retired Gen. William Turnipseed, commander of the Air National Guard of Montgomery at the time, said again this week he is “dead certain” Bush was a no-show.

In August 1972, Bush was suspended from flying because he failed to show up for his annual physical. The White House says it’s because he couldn’t get back to Texas to see his doctor, even though there were plenty of flight doctors in Alabama. 1972 also happens to be the year the Pentagon imposed random drug testing for the first time. Did Bush duck the exam because he knew he would flunk?

In November 1972, after the Senate campaign, Bush returned to Texas and, in theory, back to his Texas Guard unit. But there’s no record he ever showed up there, either. At Ellington Air Force base in Texas, his two superior officers were unable to complete his annual evaluation for service between May 1, 1972, and April 30, 1973, because “Lt. Bush has not been observed at this unit during the period of this report.”

In George Bush’s Guard service, in other words, the 12 months from May 1972 to May 1973 are a black hole. No record of his showing up for duty, period. Where was he?

Americans deserve to know, and not just for political reasons. According to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, a person who is AWOL for more than 30 days is guilty of desertion, with a maximum punishment of death. There is no statute of limitations.

The White House, of course, bristles at allegations that Bush shirked his National Guard duties, which Republican Chair Marc Racicot calls a “new low” in politics. But there’s one way to put the issue to rest once and for all. Let President Bush name one guardsman he met during the seven months he served in Alabama. Just one. If he can, the issue’s dead. If he can’t, it’s a good sign he’s lying.

Don’t hold your breath. In 2000, a group of former Alabama guardsmen offered a $3,500 reward to anyone who could remember serving with Lt. George Bush. Nobody came forward.

One final point. Is it, as Racicot charges, dirty pool for Cleland to raise this issue? Not at all. I remind you that Max Cleland is a decorated Vietnam hero who left both legs and one arm behind on the battlefield. He lost his Senate seat when President Bush went to Georgia and accused him of being unpatriotic because, while he sponsored his own homeland security bill, he dared oppose Bush’s version of the same legislation.

Fair is fair. If it was OK for George Bush to question triple-amputee Max Cleland’s patriotism, it’s OK for Max Cleland to question George Bush’s military service.

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