Manchester, N.H. -- ON THE final weekend of the Democratic primary here, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas was reflecting on the personal and political ordeal he had just been through.
Ever the optimist, he suggested that "maybe it all serves some useful purpose. It enabled people," he said, "to examine their own feelings" about the war in Vietnam that has been such a cause of discomfort in the country ever since its end.
Mr. Clinton was referring, obviously, to the allegations that as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford he used deferments to dodge the draft, and to the surfacing of a letter he wrote at the time explaining that he had put himself back in the draft in part because he planned to enter politics later on.
After a day of meeting voters at a crowded shopping mall, Mr. Clinton told of the parent of a Vietnam combat veteran and a Purple Heart winner each telling him that they had read the letter and still supported him. "It has sparked a sort of generational debate," he said, and voters had commended him "for having the courage of my convictions . . . people are for standing up for what they believe."
Mr. Clinton was alluding to the strong views he expressed in the letter as a 23-year-old against the U.S. role in Vietnam, and the picture he portrayed of himself as a young man conflicted by his fierce opposition to the war, his desire to avoid fighting in it and his simultaneous desire to protect his "political viability" in the future, which he obviously thought would be jeopardized had he taken the course of draft resistance.
The public acceptance of Mr. Clinton's conduct at the time, and in the last week when the letter was made public here, may receive its acid test between now and March 10, when Mr. Clinton turns to his native South, where issues of patriotism traditionally have been most critical in elections.
Mr. Clinton is pointing to the March 3 primary in Georgia, where the two most prominent Democrats, Gov. Zell Miller, a Marine veteran, and Sam Nunn, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have endorsed him and have stuck with him through the recent crisis of so-called character issues raised against him.
His supporters in the South, Mr. Clinton said, "believe that it will be fine once we get down there." The problem in New Hampshire, he said, was that the allegations of draft-dodging were covered by local news media and the national press intensely, day by day, as they unfolded. In the Southern states, he said, the coverage was not nearly so comprehensive and hence the political fallout not so severe. Or so he hoped.
Mr. Clinton is also relying on the fact that in the South, unlike in New Hampshire, he is not a stranger presented to the voters before they have had a chance to know him.
What happens to Mr. Clinton in the South, first in Georgia, then in the South Carolina primary on March 7 and in the Super Tuesday primaries in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri on March 10, will tell much about his ability to weather the storm.
Prior to the allegations of womanizing and draft-dodging, the string of Southern contests was being viewed as Mr. Clinton's opportunity to sew up the Democratic nomination, or at least get a firm grip on it, before the large industrial state primaries in Illinois, Michigan (both March 17), New York (April 7) and Pennsylvania (April 28).
Mr. Clinton came into New Hampshire originally as another unknown candidate who would be striving chiefly to get a respectable share of the vote to nail down a comfortable position in the pecking order of Democrats heading into the Southern primaries.
But his emergence as the front-runner, based on an impressive domestic agenda and the ability to articulate it that drove him up in the polls, raised expectations about him. Speculation grew that he could end the contest for the Democratic nomination here in New Hampshire.
His personal troubles jarred such thoughts. The draft issue, with its expected special salience in the South, guaranteed that the fortunes of Bill Clinton would depend in great measure on the reaction of Southern voters, no matter what judgment New Hampshire passed on him.
The draft issue, in fact, could get greater attention in Dixie for the simple reason that the severe economic recession that was of prime concern to voters here is not likely to be so dominant an issue in the Southern primary states.