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The American Legion meets the candidates Clinton asks fairness; Bush talks of Iraq


CHICAGO -- Democrat Bill Clinton sought to bury questions over his Vietnam-era draft status, and President Bush presented himself as a comrade in arms in separate appearances before the country's largest veterans' group.

Mr. Clinton also touted his plans to reduce defense spending, improve veterans' programs and open government files on POWs and MIAs.

"If I should lose this election on the real issues, I shall be satisfied that I tried my best and was fairly judged," he told the American Legion at its national convention.

Earlier, Mr. Bush extolled his leadership in the Persian Gulf and dismissed accusations that he ended the war too soon instead of sending troops after Saddam Hussein. "We are not in the slaughter business," Mr. Bush said.

The American Legion's convention provided a high-profile forum for the presidential rivals, who spoke of decisions they've made about wars generations apart.

Mr. Clinton asked the 3,000 Legionnaires not to oppose him simply because he did not serve in Vietnam.

"If any of you choose to vote against me because of what happened 23 years ago, that is your right, and I respect that," he said. "But it is my hope that you will cast your vote while looking toward the future with hope rather than remaining fixed to the problems of the past."

Mr. Clinton recounted his version of the events in the late 1960s in which he joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps in Arkansas after receiving a draft notice in 1969 while studying in Oxford, England. He later changed his mind, dropped out of ROTC and took his chances in a draft lottery.

He said he would have served if he had received a low number, but his birthdate was the 311th picked. Mr. Clinton said he was "relieved" about his low draft number, which spared him from being drafted.

"You know that I never served in the military. You know that I opposed the war in Vietnam. I know many of you disagree with me, and I respect that," he said to applause.

In raising the matter before a veterans' group, Mr. Clinton hoped to blunt it as a campaign issue, aides said. He compared his

action to John F. Kennedy's going before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960 to face head-on the issue of voters objecting to a candidate because of his Catholic religion.

The governor noted that his running mate, Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee, served in Vietnam but said combat experience should not be a prerequisite for being commander in chief.

Mr. Clinton cited the leadership of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, Woodrow Wilson during World War I, Franklin D. Roosevelt in World War II and Ronald Reagan.

"What makes a president fit to command in my view," Mr. Clinton said, "is faith in God, belief in the greatness of our country and the goodness of our people, a commitment to making and keeping America the strongest country in the world -- militarily, economically and morally -- and understanding of the essential character of the American people."

Mr. Clinton also played down differences between his proposed defense cuts and Mr. Bush's.

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