WASHINGTON -- The entrance into the 1996 presidential race of Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, a fiery Republican conservative who sat out the Vietnam War after obtaining a series of draft deferments, has rekindled a divisive debate:

Does it matter if the commander in chief, the only American empowered to order troops into combat, did not serve in the military and may have actively avoided service when the nation was at war?

The issue has already cropped up in New Hampshire, the first presidential primary state, making the 1996 campaign the third consecutive election in which political professionals have had to grapple with the question.

Perhaps because it involves issues that are slightly different each time for each candidate, however, no consensus has emerged.

"The issue of the draft matters if it becomes a symbol for broader character issues," says Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who worked for Bill Clinton in the 1992 campaign -- and is polling on this question again for 1996.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who spent nearly six years in Hanoi prisons after his plane was shot down during the Vietnam War, does not really disagree, but he has fashioned a different, more precise yardstick.

For him, the crucial question is whether a presidential candidate attempted to pull strings not available to ordinary citizens in order to avoid combat.

This was the accusation, never substantiated, leveled at Dan Quayle in 1988, when George Bush chose the youthful Indiana senator as his running mate.

Mr. Bush was a war hero who had enlisted as a teen-ager as soon as the bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor, but Mr. Quayle, like many well-off young men of his generation, avoided Vietnam, first by going to college, then by enlisting in the National Guard.

Four years later, there was a crescendo in the debate when it turned out that Bill Clinton misled his draft board about his intentions, organized anti-war demonstrations in England and in a 1969 letter wrote of "loathing" the military.

Nothing of that nature has surfaced about Mr. Gramm.

But at least one lower-tier GOP presidential candidate, conservative California Rep. Robert K. Dornan, has already taken pot shots at Mr. Gramm -- just as he did at Bill Clinton three years ago.

When Mr. Clinton won the 1992 election, many political observers believed that this issue had been put to rest.

But it has been reopened by the candidacy of Mr. Gramm, who, when asked why he took five student and teaching deferments during Vietnam, responded that it didn't "make sense" for him to enlist or allow himself to be drafted.

A grating answer

"Being from a military family," he said, "I never saw, if I had joined the Army, that I would have gone to Vietnam.

"I would have been working in some library or some research institute in the Army. I thought what I was doing at Texas A&M; was important."

The answer struck critics -- and some friends -- as elitist. It also galled some military people, because it sounded as though Mr. Gramm was saying he somehow paid his dues through his father and brother, both of whom were in the service.

"That's absurd," said retired Marine Lt. Col. William Corson, a former military history instructor at the Naval Academy. "He isn't giving to the United Way! . . ."

Even Mr. McCain, who is personally close to Mr. Gramm and the national chairman of his presidential campaign, winced when he heard his friend's answer.

"I think Phil Gramm should have said, 'I received deferments. Period.' " said Mr. McCain. "Not talk about his brother or anything else.

". . . That's the way he should have handled it. I told him that before. I've told him since, and I think he's no longer saying it that way."

Democrats who worked on the 1992 campaign felt a sense of deja vu: Mr. Gramm's defensiveness reminded them of how candidate Clinton responded to the same question.

"It hurts Gramm, or any candidate, if they demonstrated clear class differences between themselves and the electorate," said Ms. Lake.

She recently completed a poll showing that while 38 percent of Americans believe how a candidate dealt with the draft is not important, roughly 30 percent say that it's "extremely" important.

That group is disproportionately made of up Southerners, conservatives, war veterans and members of what author and self-described military brat Mary Edwards Wertsch calls "The Fortress" -- the 10 million career military and their families.

It was this last group, especially, that reacted against Bill Clinton.

It is this group that might well find Mr. Gramm's answer unsatisfactory despite his hawkishness on national security issues.

This is especially true because Mr. Gramm is not running in a vacuum; he will be matching, not just his ideas, but his resume against other candidates with different records.

One of the Republicans seeking the GOP nomination is Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. In 1943, at 19, Mr. Dole left his home in Russell, Kan., and entered the Army as an infantryman.

Three weeks before Germany surrendered, he was grievously wounded in Italy and spent four years in military hospitals.

To this day, Mr. Dole does not have use of his right hand, and he still suffers pain.

Another top Republican eyeing the nomination is California Gov. Pete Wilson, a Marine Corps officer from 1955 to 1958.

A third veteran considering a run is retired four-star Gen. Colin L. Powell, who served as an army lieutenant in Vietnam -- and who, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, directed U.S. forces during the Persian Gulf war.

It would be unlikely that these candidates would raise the draft issue -- but they don't have to.

Three years ago, Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, a Medal of Honor winner in Vietnam, held a political rally in Atlanta. The warm-up speaker, in a jab at Mr. Clinton, said, "We need a commander in chief, not a commander in chicken!"

Already this year, Mr. Dornan, for one, has described Mr. Gramm for New England reporters as "a Vietnam-era draft evader undeserving of the role" of president.

"Anybody born prior to 1952 who was physically fit had a choice," he said. "You either did something or sent someone else there in your place."

Strong feelings

The strong feelings about this issue within the Republican Party are one reason Mr. Gramm's answer to the draft question made even his closest friends cringe. But Mr. McCain draws a distinction between Vietnam and World War II.

"In Bob Dole's war, everybody went," said Mr. McCain. "In Phil Gramm's generation, hardly anybody went, except for those on the lowest economic rung of society."

This generational argument was made four years ago; but not everyone buys it.

"I don't think which war it was matters," says former Navy Secretary James Webb, an Annapolis graduate and much-decorated Marine infantry officer in Vietnam. "If you want to be a leader, be a leader."

Mr. Webb adds that while he doesn't consider military service to be a precondition for the presidency, voters have every right to ask those who didn't go some tough questions.

"If you want to be commander in chief, and if, while your country was at war and you had the credentials to serve -- but you didn't -- then the burden is on you to show why should be trusted with the reins of the United States military," he said.

Among historians, there is no agreement on the effect of military service on presidents. Dwight D. Eisenhower was a five-star general -- who mistrusted what he termed "the military-industrial complex."

Ronald Reagan spent his stint in the service making films for the Army -- and he gave the Pentagon most of what it wanted.

But Lieutenant Colonel Corson believes that combat-tested presidents -- he names James K. Polk and Harry S. Truman -- tend to remember the gruesome lessons of being an infantryman and make decisions as commander in chief that minimize needless casualties.

Don Snider, a military historian recently hired to teach civilian-military relations at West Point, has studied this issue but from a different angle. He determined after the 1994 elections that for the first time in American history, fewer than half of those in Congress had ever served in the U.S. military.

Questions for each side

"It raises questions for each side," he said. "How does the military react to a group of people who don't understand them? And must elected officials have served in the military to vote wisely on military issues?"

Mr. Snider tends to think that smart legislators can learn the subject matter and do right by America's national defense.

He also says that Quayle-Clinton-Gramm controversies were inevitable, regardless of Vietnam, as the nation went from a lTC conscription-based system to a volunteer military drawn from a much narrower socio-economic class.

"If they just happened to be among the privileged, they shouldn't be blamed," he said. "They didn't write the rules of the road."

But inside The Fortress, old attitudes die hard. There, Grover Cleveland's name is still invoked with disgust. Following the rules at the time, he paid $300 to avoid the draft during the Civil War -- and the young Ohioan who took his place never made it home alive.

Last year, former California congressman Paul N. "Pete" McCloskey Jr., one of the most decorated Marines of the Korean War, chose sides in the Virginia Senate race among three Vietnam-era Marines, Democratic Sen. Charles S. Robb, Republican challenger Oliver L. North and independent Marshall Coleman.

It wasn't just politics that motivated him, he says. It was respect for what Lyndon Johnson's son-in-law had done.

"Chuck Robb was only one of two sons of dignitaries in Washington who volunteered for Vietnam," he said. "The other was Al Gore [whose father was a U.S. senator]. I know people say he . . . wasn't on the front lines. But in Vietnam, everyone was in harm's way. Everybody who was there."

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