NASHUA, N.H. -- Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's presidential campaign was sidetracked again yesterday, this time over new questions about how he avoided military service at the height of the Vietnam War.
For Mr. Clinton, the issue is not new -- it first surfaced when he entered politics in the 1970s. And to a certain extent, the latest controversy involves recollections by others of events that took place 23 years ago.
But it comes at an especially critical juncture for the 45-year-old candidate, who has emerged as a leading contender for the Democratic nomination and is being carefully scrutinized by the public and the news media.
With the New Hampshire primary just 11 days away, Mr. Clinton leads the Democratic field, according to the polls. Two of his lagging opponents were quick to seize upon the latest flap, saying it raised doubts about Mr. Clinton's honesty.
The issue of Vietnam-era service for baby-boom-generation candidates was first injected into presidential politics four years ago, when Vice President Dan Quayle's membership in the Indiana National Guard became the subject of intense interest. It has the potential to become a flash point again this year if Mr. Clinton becomes his party's nominee against President Bush, a World War II veteran.
Alone among the Democratic contenders, Mr. Clinton supported Mr. Bush's use of military force in the Persian Gulf, a factor often cited by those who contend he's the most electable Democrat.
To the degree that his own failure to join the military, or perform alternate public service, becomes an issue, it could weaken Mr. Clinton's efforts to reach out to moderate and conservativevoters, particularly in the general election.
Besieged by reporters in Manchester and Nashua, the governor gave a calm but forceful defense of his behavior 23 years ago. Mr. Clinton said that, after first attempting to avoid conscription, he decided to expose himself to the draft. He was never called because he drew a high number in the 1969 draft lottery.
"I put myself into the draft when I thought it was a 100 percent certainty that I'd be called," he said.
But proposed reforms in the draft system, widely publicized at the time Mr. Clinton was changing his draft status, raise questions about whether he thought he was putting himself at risk.
Retired Col. Eugene Holmes, then commander of the Army ROTC program at the University of Arkansas, was quoted in yesterday's Wall Street Journal as saying that Mr. Clinton, then a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University in England, "was able to manipulate things" so that he was not conscripted in the fall of 1969. He told the paper that Mr. Clinton misled him into thinking he would be returning to Arkansas within a couple of months.
Mr. Clinton, disagreeing, said he does not know why Colonel Holmes, now 75, would make such a statement. He said the ROTC commander encouraged him to go back for his second year at Oxford.
Both men agree that during the summer of 1969, Mr. Clinton told Colonel Holmes that he intended to enroll at the University of Arkansas Law School and that he wanted to join the ROTC program there. Instead, Mr. Clinton went to Yale Law School and never joined ROTC.
As a result of his verbal commitment to join ROTC, Mr. Clinton got a draft deferment for September and October 1969, the two months he had been told he was likely to be called up.
In September or October 1969, he says he changed his mind and decided not to join the ROTC unit.
At the time Mr. Clinton backed out of his commitment to join ROTC, which would have required him to go on active duty after finishing law school, the Selective Service system was in turmoil, asPresident Richard M. Nixon struggled to ease anti-war sentiment on college campuses.
On Sept. 19, 1969, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird announced that Mr. Nixon intended to exempt men ages 20 to 26 -- which included Mr. Clinton -- from the proposed draft lottery.
Mr. Clinton says he decided to give up his ROTC deferment that month because he "felt badly" about having a deferment that would last four years, since several former classmates had already lost their lives in the war.
By the time the lottery took place, on Dec. 1, 1969, the rules had changed again and Mr. Clinton was in danger of being drafted. But he drew number 311; no one with a number higher than 195 was called.
Mr. Clinton, who strongly opposed the war, said yesterday, "I was not seeking to avoid military service."
He said he applied in 1969 to join the Air Force and Army officer training programs but failed the medical exams because he lacked "fusion vision" and because he had a "range problem" with his hearing. At the time, he had already taken and passed his draft physical.
Democratic candidate Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Vietnam War hero who enlisted in 1966, expressed doubt that Mr. Clinton was "telling the truth."
"Maybe it was different in 1969," the Nebraska senator said, "but in 1966, they were taking any warm bodies that could walk upright and eat with a knife and fork. I don't recall any such intense scrutiny of my hearing or sight when I went in."
Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, a former Navy pilot, said he grew up in a small town where anyone who shirked military service would have been "run out of town."
Later, in a television interview, Mr. Harkin added, "I think this will hurt badly."
Mr. Kerrey and Mr. Harkin are the only Democratic presidential candidates who served in the armed forces.