WASHINGTON -- President Bush's attack on Democratic rival Bill Clinton's patriotism sprang from an orchestrated Republican strategy plotted at an Oval Office session involving Mr. Bush, White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III and four GOP congressmen: Robert K. Dornan, Randy "Duke" Cunningham and Duncan Hunter of California and Sam Johnson of Texas.
Mr. Dornan and Mr. Cunningham told Mr. Bush earlier this week that he could "kill Clinton politically" if he would hammer him on the Democratic presidential nominee's efforts to avoid the draft and his visit to Moscow when he was a 23-year-old Rhodes scholar in 1970.
Wednesday night, Mr. Bush, echoing charges made earlier on the House floor by Mr. Dornan and Mr. Cunnningham, challenged Mr. Clinton's patriotism on CNN's "Larry King Live." The president declared that Mr. Clinton should "level with the American people" on the draft and his Moscow visit, and accused the governor of leading demonstrations "against his own country from a foreign soil . . . when your sons and daughters are dying halfway around the world."
Mr. Dornan, who along with Mr. Cunningham described the session in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, said that in Tuesday's meeting, he urged Mr. Bush "to take the gloves off." Mr. Cunningham said that the president "told us not to worry, that he would use the issue."
Mr. Cunningham, a highly decorated Navy combat pilot of the Vietnam War, said that he told Mr. Bush: "This is an issue that will kill Clinton when people realize what a traitor he is to this country. In some countries if something like this came out, he would be tried as a traitor. Tokyo Rose had nothing over Clinton."
At that, Mr. Baker, Mr. Bush's chief political strategist, "just laughed, but didn't say much," Mr. Cunningham said, though he later stressed that the president must "remain above board."
"We cannot pick up the phone and use the power of this office to find the kind of information you're getting. You have to do it for us,' " Mr. Cunningham quoted Mr. Baker as saying.
By challenging Mr Clinton's patriotism during his CNN appearance Wednesday night, Mr. Bush virtually assured that the issue would be raised in the first presidential debate Sunday. And White House strategists clearly hope that it will give new power to their thus-far unsuccessful effort to use the so-called character issue to reduce Mr. Clinton's commanding lead in the polls.
But the attack on Mr. Clinton brought sharp criticism from some Republicans. And it touched off bitter exchanges on the Senate floor yesterday as indignant Democrats assailed Mr. Bush for "McCarthyism."
"This kinder, gentler presidency has given way in the last days of the campaign to innuendo and smear," New Jersey Democrat Bill Bradley said in a floor speech.
Some Republican senators rose to Mr. Bush's defense. A red-faced, angry Ted Stevens of Alaska said that there was nothing wrong with questioning why Mr. Clinton went to Moscow and what he did there. "What I see is a man who wanted to avoid military service and now he wants to be commander-in-chief," Mr. Stevens said.
Mr. Bush was unavailable for comment yesterday and Mr. Baker and his top aide, Margaret Tutwiler, did not return telephone calls.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, on the campaign trail with Mr. Bush, denied that the Oval Office meeting with the congressmen had led to the president's new attack on Mr. Clinton. Mr. Fitzwater said that Mr. Bush had met with them "to hear their views on the issues."
Mr. Dornan and Mr. Cunningham said that they met with Mr. Bush and Mr. Baker for 20 minutes to lay out their accusations against Mr. Clinton over the Moscow trip and his role in opposing the Vietnam War. They said that they urged the president to use the points in attacking the governor.
Mr. Clinton has acknowledged that he engaged in anti-war protests when he was a college student, including when he studied as a Rhodes scholar in Oxford, England. In the past, Mr. Bush has questioned Mr. Clinton's accounts of his efforts to avoid the draft, but never before had he directly challenged his patriotism and accused him of anti-American activities.
Mr. Clinton has readily acknowledged that he spent a week in Moscow in late 1969 during a 40-day tour of Europe while on a break in his second year at Oxford. He said that he paid for the trip with his own money and found it "interesting."
Douglas Bailey, a prominent GOP political analyst, said of Mr. Bush's strategy, "It's not good politics; it's desperate politics and a measure of how far he thinks this campaign has slipped away from him."
Mr. Bailey said that other Republicans were "really upset" about Mr. Bush's approach and thought that he was "debasing his own greatest strength in the polls -- the perception of him as a decent man."