WASHINGTON -- When presidential hopeful Bill Clinton found himself once again entangled in a volatile web of questions over his Vietnam draft status, it was his former classmates from Oxford, most of them fellow Rhodes scholars, who publicly came to his defense.
They are the same high-powered professionals who through the years have advised the Arkansas governor on everything from foreign policy to environmental issues. The same lawyers, professors and public officials who this year are telephoning their own business contacts, writing letters to friends, holding parties and raising thousands of dollars for their buddy's candidacy.
Inside the campaign, they're called "the Clinton network" or "the friends network." Every candidate has his own version.
In the past two decades -- as anointment by party elders has given way to self-appointment in the making of presidential candidates -- the traditional party machines have, in a way, been replaced by these smaller, personal "networks" as a prime source of financial and staff support.
These groups help to give a national profile -- and often a human dimension -- to governors and senators who may not be known at all to voters outside Little Rock, Ark., or Lowell, Mass.
Paul E. Tsongas, a former Peace Corps volunteer, has tapped into the 100,000-plus network of returned Peace Corps volunteers across the country for money, staffing and support. And while he wears the mantle of "another Greek from Massachusetts" -- a dubious title at best after the Michael S. Dukakis debacle of 1988 -- the current Democratic front-runner is beginning to reap the benefits of the Greek-American community's largess.
Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, a former Navy SEAL who lost part of his leg in Vietnam, has found broad support for his candidacy among not only former SEALs, but also among disabled war veterans. And along with the Oxonian crew, a large Georgetown University alumni network has kicked into gear to raise money for Georgetown graduate Bill Clinton.
Perhaps the greatest display of the "network" has been George Bush's Yale machine. In his 1980 bid for the presidency, he relied so heavily on Yale graduates, many of whom had just raised millions of dollars for the university, that one classmate said he'd turned the "Campaign for Yale" into the "Campaign for Bush." High-powered Yale graduates studded his finance committee back then -- as they still do his administration.
Mr. Clinton's campaign likewise is laced with network members. On his paid staff alone are deputy campaign manager George Stephanopoulos (Oxford, 1984-1986); deputy director of finance and policy Saul Benjamin (Oxford, 1970-1973); and policy and issues coordinator Bruce Reed (Oxford, 1982-1984). Beyond that are informal advisers and active fund raisers all over the country from former Oxonian Tom Allen, mayor of Portland, Maine, to Tom Brewer, a lawyer in Seattle.
"Of the 32 Rhodes scholars [in Mr. Clinton's class] I would expect all of us -- either informally or formally -- are involved in the campaign," said Robert Reich, now an economics professor at Harvard University and an informal adviser and fund raiser for the Clinton campaign. "It's quite a large network actually. Although there are only 32 a year, there is a tendency to be quite involved in public life."
There is also a tendency to be in a position to donate money. Just within the last three weeks, Mr. Benjamin has raised more than $65,000 from his contacts within the Oxford community alone.
On the other end of the spectrum are Mr. Tsongas' cadre of returned Peace Corps volunteers, more abundant in number but often not as deep-pocketed.
"We've been getting a lot of donations from returned volunteers, especially from people who served in Ethiopia [where Mr. Tsongas served], but they don't tend to be high-dollar," says Amy Pressman, a coordinator for the Tsongas campaign and herself a former volunteer.
More than 100 former Peace Corps workers have volunteered in Mr. Tsongas' Boston headquarters alone, working phone banks, sending out mailings and putting together fund raisers. And in nearly every state, there are fund-raising efforts aimed at Peace Corps veterans.
Potentially more profitable for Mr. Tsongas is the Greek-American community, which contributed more than $3 million to Michael Dukakis' campaign and is just beginning to loosen its purse strings this go-round.
"At the beginning, every person I know -- even in other states -- was very cautious," said Greek-American Michael Stefanaras, chairman of Baltimore's Tsongas committee. "We didn't want to get in the same way we did with Dukakis.
"Now that Tsongas' popularity has increased, you hear more and more Greeks, they want to participate. The big boys will come out with more money. The Greek-Americans all over the country, they're taking a second look," he said.
Mr. Stefanaras, an accountant, recently helped to organize a fund raiser at Jimmy's Seafood in Baltimore, as well as one at a private home, that together brought in $15,000.
"The Greek community just loves politics," says Baltimore City Council member Perry Sfikas. "So when someone does come along and says, 'I want to run,' there's a lot of pent-up buying power."
Up in New Hampshire, many of Mr. Kerrey's comrades from his military career have gathered to help their own boy do great things. John Roberts, a member of an underwater demolition team in the late 1960s who was stationed with Navy SEAL Kerrey in Coronado, Calif., has spent the last three weeks campaigning in the Granite State.
"I've talked to students and Rotary Clubs. I've visited veterans homes, old-age homes, stopped at VFW and American Legion posts. I've done phone canvassing, foot canvassing, appeared at rallies, done interviews with the media, visited restaurants," says Mr. Roberts of Kentucky.
As a supervisor of offshore oil-field diving in the Gulf of Mexico, it's not how he usually spends his days. "The last time I was involved in a political campaign, it was for senior class president in high school," he says.