ATLANTA -- Bob Kerrey's decision to play the draft evasion card against Bill Clinton here suggests that the Nebraska Democrat subscribes to the view of Adlai E. Stevenson a generation ago that "the first duty of a politician is to get elected."
It is the issue that gives Kerrey the best chance to establish himself as the prime alternative to Clinton in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Kerrey has said out loud what political professionals in both parties have been saying privately ever since the questions were raised about Clinton's personal life and his history of avoiding the draft in the war in Vietnam -- that there is at least a valid question as to whether those issues might sink him against President Bush in November.
That is what Kerrey meant when he said that if Clinton is nominated, "he's going to get opened up like a soft peanut . . . he will be the issue, not the issue of jobs, not the issue of the economy."
Kerrey's decision to raise this question in the Georgia primary is not surprising. The primary here Tuesday is the first of seven that will be held in Southern states over the next 10 days -- states in which Arkansan Clinton is the favorite. The question has been whether conservative Southern Democrats are, as reputed, so patriotic that Clinton can suffer serious defections // because of his draft history.
There is, of course, some risk for Kerrey in raising the issue so directly, even though his own history as a man who won a Medal of Honor and lost a leg in Vietnam offers him a measure of insulation. There could be a backlash among Democrats who may fault Kerrey for negative campaigning and compare his tactics to Bush's questioning of Michael Dukakis' patriotism in 1988. Kerrey's attempt to focus on the electability issue wasn't helped when a state legislator introducing him here referred to Clinton as a prospective "commander-in-chicken" if he were elected to the presidency.
There is also the risk of the Democratic Party getting some misleading information from the results here. If Clinton wins handily, as he is now favored to do, his success is likely to be read as evidence the draft issue isn't a burden for him after all. But that isn't necessarily the case at all -- not when you consider he would be running against a president who didn't hesitate to play the Willie Horton card in 1988.
At this point, the evidence is sketchy and inconclusive. Opinion polls have shown Clinton with "negatives" above 30 percent, a dangerous level, and have found 25 percent to 30 percent of the voters saying that the questions raised about Clinton might affect their votes. About half of them have said that definitely would be the case, and no candidate can afford to cede 13 percent to 15 percent of the electorate from the outset. On the other hand, the voters who cite Clinton's personal history may be people who wouldn't vote for him for entirely different reasons.
The record so far this year isn't particularly revealing. The Gennifer Flowers episode and the draft issue knocked Clinton out of a clear lead in the polls on the New Hampshire primary before he recovered to finish a strong second to Paul Tsongas. He ran fourth behind Tsongas, Jerry Brown and "uncommitted" in the Maine caucuses and then third in South Dakota with 19 percent to 40 percent for Kerrey and 25 percent for another Farm Belt candidate, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa.
But Clinton has been relying on the Southern primaries -- and particularly the big ones here and in Florida and Texas March 10 -- to give him a clear lead for the nomination entering the first major tests in the industrial Rust Belt March 17, primaries in Illinois and Michigan. Clinton has the advantage of being Southern and, perhaps more important, the beneficiary of more support from prominent black political leaders than any other candidate. In Georgia, he also enjoys the endorsements of Gov. Zell Miller, Sen. Sam Nunn and Rep. John Lewis, which ain't exactly chopped liver.
But, among other things, presidential primaries are supposed to answer the two parties' questions about the electability of prospective candidates. To that extent, Kerrey's use of the issue is both legitimate and relevant -- as is Clinton's countercomplaint that Kerrey refused to support the use of force in the Persian Gulf last year.