I think that Bush has a significant advantage over his opponents in the AWOL story.
He knows what really happened.
Everybody else is just guessing, but Bush knows. This gives him an enormous strategic advantage. His opponents don’t really know what happened so they expend a great deal of resources chasing mirages and basing strategy on them.
It is not just that Bush was involved with the actual events but that he remembers them without advantages. He has stuck to the exact same line for 10 years: he fulfilled his obligations. Nothing fancy, just the basics. He deftly flips the ball back across the net each time, basically saying, “I fulfilled my obligations, prove I didn’t.” He feels safe doing so because he knows that while he might have bent some rules, he never broke them. He can safely let his opponents poke around all they want, there is nothing to find. He knows he is safe from attack from that direction. He did not panic when the forged documents came out because he understood they would ultimately be an ineffective attack.
I think Kerry got blindsided by the Swiftvets because he doesn’t really know what happened. He was there, but he remembers with such advantages that it never occurred to him that others that were there as well would have anything but glowing memories of his service. Nobody ever seems to have questioned his “Christmas in Cambodia” story and he retold it so many times I think he honestly believes it himself. The same holds true for his anti-war activities. He remembers the adoration he received from the Leftist intelligentsia but not the fury and hatred he engendered in the majority of veterans.
Bush and Kerry are like two opposing generals. Bush has a realistic understanding of the disposition of his own troops but Kerry does not. Kerry cannot predict the consequences of an enemy movement because he doesn’t know where his own forces are. Kerry ignored the Swiftvets because he never understood that he was in anyway vulnerable to attacks on his wartime service. The attack fell upon a weak point he did not even imagine existed. Worse, it was a weak point he believed was a strong point.
Bush’s business and personal failures in the mid-80’s forced upon him a self-reexamination rare in people involved in politics. I think it knocked the arrogance out him and let him look at himself in a ruthlessly honest fashion. He understands himself and this in turn gives him a good idea of how others see him as well. That’s a tremendous advantage for a politician.
To defeat Bush, Kerry must first truly understand himself. I don’t think he has the inclination, nor the time left, to do so.