WHO do you trust?"
That booming and ungrammatical line, planned to echo in attack ads the last 30 days of the election, had been the last-ditch hope of George Bush's campaign to close the gap with Bill Clinton.
Doesn't take a Madison Avenue genius to invent the ads. Plenty of flags. World War II photos of Lieutenant Bush in Navy flight gear. Maybe a famous general who'd say sternly he wouldn't trust a president who'd ducked thedraft and covered it up.
Bam! Socko! Untrustworthy, truth-dodging Bill Clinton would nosedive in the polls.
But for George Bush, this seemingly sure-fire attack against Mr. Clinton is flying in his face like a berserk boomerang.
The president's diatribes against the governor's fudging on his draft record are mocked by mounting evidence that Mr. Bush has lied about his role in the Iran-contra scandal.
Suddenly the trust issue is a Cruise missile doing a U-turn onto its launch pad.
Over and over, in two presidential campaigns and many press sessions, Mr. Bush has insisted he was an innocent bystander in Ronald Reagan's 1985-86 arms-for-hostage deal and Ollie North's skimmed funds to the contras.
What the heck -- Ron couldn't remember anything; why should George?
"When you don't know something, it's hard to react . . . We were out of the loop," Mr. Bush told Washington Post columnist David Broder in 1987.
Now Mr. Bush's oft-repeated "out-of-the-loop" defense is sounding, well, loopy.
With damaging timing for Mr. Bush's '92 campaign, some involved in the Iran-contra fiasco say Mr. Bush knew plenty about the Gipper's arms plot.
"I myself briefed the then-vice president several times," said former National Security Council staffer Howard Teicher on ABC's "Nightline."
"Bush was in on the key decisions. There's simply no question about that. For him to suggest otherwise is false," said former Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard Secord, a key Iran-contra operator.
A White House spokesman fires back that General Secord is "pushing his new book" and, anyway, "150 lawyers have investigated this." She doesn't add that General Secord says he'll vote for Mr. Bush.
The ticking time bomb was tucked amid 1,700 pages of notes written by ex-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. Angered by Mr. Bush's disclaimer that he hadn't known of Mr. Weinberger's and then-Secretary of State George Shultz's battle against the arms deal, Mr. Shultz bristled, "That's terrible! How can he say that? He was on the other side."
Even in his autobiography, "Looking Forward," Mr. Bush hammered home that he never knew of the Weinberger-Shultz opposition -- "I was deliberately excluded from key meetings."
"That's flatly wrong," says Tom Blanton of the National Security Archives, whose documents show Mr. Bush a participant in Iran-contra sessions. "Bush's story doesn't hold water."
The irony is that self-righteous cries by Bush & Co. for Mr. Clinton to fully confess his draft-ducking are now turned upside down.
"He [Clinton] should come clean to the American people," Mr. Bush demanded last week. His ex-National Guardsman veep, Dan Quayle, often parrots, "It's a serious character flaw that will contribute to his [Clinton's] defeat because he's not telling the truth."
Those lines have the aroma of self-mockery. Mr. Bush, whose testimony before the Tower Commission and Iran-contra investigative panel is secret, has stonewalled his part in the arms scam. In the Contest of Amnesia, Mr. Clinton admits memory lapses about his draft machinations 23 years back. Mr. Bush can't recall events six years ago.
"I guarantee I've answered 100 times more questions about the draft than he has about Iran-contra," said Mr. Clinton.
So, is this a sordid tie between the '92 candidates -- a Democrat who keeps changing his draft tale vs. a Republican slamming the door on his role in a national scandal?
Oddly, considering the long, noisy bombast over Mr. Clinton's draft status, most people don't see a liar's standoff.
In a September Gallup poll, 55 percent surveyed said Mr. Bush was "lying about Iran-contra," while 60 percent thought Mr. Clinton was "telling the truth about the draft." A CBS-New York Times poll came up with similar results.
Sure, the Iran-contra debacle is a dusty relic compared to America's 1992 economic obsessions. The bad news for Mr. Bush is that his dodging turns his "who-do-you-trust?" attacks into self-caricature.
And bad grammar, at that.
One reason Mr. Bush's poll numbers stick in the mid-40s is that Iran-contra is a paradigm of the president's flip-flops: The infamous "read-my-lips-no-more-taxes" pledge, vows to be the environmental and educational president, fudging on abortion, promise of millions of new jobs. Matched against that list, hitting on Mr. Clinton's draft credibility sounds like "Saturday Night Live" parody.
Maybe Mr. Bush should scratch those flag-waving, draft-baiting "Who Do You Trust?" ads.
Too many cynical Americans seem impatient to answer the question, maybe by a landslide.
Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.