WASHINGTON -- As President Bush spoke majestically yesterday about his experience as a fighter pilot and commander in chief to an American Legion convention, his campaign staff handled the other half of the equation, issuing a press release about Democrat Bill Clinton's lack of military service.
The contrast between Navy Lt. j.g. George Bush and the draft-dodging Democrat -- as the Bush team has been portraying Mr. Clinton -- is one of the strongest weapons the Republicans have in their campaign arsenal.
"We're pressing it every place," says Bush deputy campaign manager James Lake. "People need to be reminded."
Yesterday, Mr. Bush told his fellow veterans, "At the age of 18, I went off to fight. Like many of you, I was scared, but I was willing."
In case the comparison with Mr. Clinton was lost on anyone, the Bush-Quayle camp sent out another in its series of fax attacks, this one pointing out inconsistencies in Mr. Clinton's previous comments about whether or not he received a draft notice
during the Vietnam war, and declaring, "We're waiting, were you inducted or not, Bill?"
The Bush team is using lingering questions over the Democratic nominee's draft status as a way to get at the "character" and "trust" issues -- without having to resort to the infidelity charges -- and also as a way to make headway in the South, one of the chief battlegrounds of this election, where patriotism and military service are fervently embraced.
As the United States and its allies prepare to impose a "no-fly" zone over southern Iraq, Mr. Bush is also reminding voters of his role as commander of an international military force in contrast to Mr. Clinton's lack of experience.
Clinton campaign adviser Paul Begala argues that the Republicans' emphasis on military experience will be overshadowed by domestic issues. "The Republicans are desperate to get this election on anything but the economy. Veterans, like everybody else, want this election to be about the economy, health care, education."
No president since the 1930s has been elected without some kind of military service -- even if it's been exaggerated or, as in the case of Ronald Reagan, who was largely limited to making war movies in Hollywood. Still, political strategists and presidential scholars aren't sure how important an issue this will be in 1992.
"Voters don't volunteer that as a reason to vote for George Bush," says Alan Secrest, a Democratic pollster who's done a lot of work in the south where the issue would likely have most resonance. "It's not a critical variable right now."
Michael McCurry, an adviser to Nebraska senator and Vietnam veteran Bob Kerrey during his presidential bid earlier this year, said the issue didn't help his candidate much because of the great ambivalence about the Vietnam War. For anyone in Mr. Clinton's generation, he says, the GOP is "scratching a very sore spot."
And Georgetown University political scientist Stephen Wayne doesn't think Mr. Clinton's lack of a war record will hurt him.
But, he adds, "If we start bombing Iraq again, then it ups the ante on that issue."
Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says that Mr. Clinton's draft status "has more potency" as one element in a broad swipe at the nominee's judgment, character and decision-making than as individual issue.
Indeed, Bush advisers say they're framing the draft issue, not around whether or not Mr. Clinton served in the military, but around his at times fuzzy and varying explanations of the actions he took 23 years ago.
It is perhaps a safer strategy for the Republicans, given the fact that so many members of Mr. Clinton's generation also wrestled with the Vietnam War. And given that Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney boasts no military service, and that Vice President Dan Quayle's membership in the Indiana National Guard during the Vietnam War created its own tidal wave of controversy during the 1988 election.
"What's really relevant is character," says Mr. Lake. "Clinton looks very manipulative, very conniving. He tries to convey that he's something he's not. He tried to convey that his record on the draft was something it wasn't."
Mr. Clinton, who spoke and marched against the Vietnam War as Rhodes scholar in England, received an induction notice in April 1969, a fact he never mentioned until it was turned up by political opponents last winter.
He received a deferment by signing up for the Reserve Officers )) Training Corps program at the University of Arkansas but later backed out and took his chances in the draft lottery. Mr. Clinton drew a high number in the lottery and never had to serve.
The issue severely bruised him during the Democratic primaries, especially after scrutiny of his record uncovered a 1969 letter he wrote to an Army ROTC officer thanking him for "saving me from the draft," and admitting that he ultimately decided to accept the draft "to maintain my political viability within the system."
Hours after Mr. Bush addressed the veterans, Mr. Clinton attempted to outline his draft history before the same audience. But he failed to explain the previous statements that could call into question his character -- such as the "political viability" line -- or his feelings about the military.
In the 1969 letter, young Bill Clinton wrote that he, like many others, find themselves "still loving their country but loathing the military," a line Republicans plan to shoot back at the man who now hopes to become commander in chief of the nation's armed forces.