WASHINGTON -- Democratic challenger Bill Clinton thwarted yesterday what was expected to be a direct attack on his military draft record by President Bush, but the Bush campaign also claimed victory, saying it had put Mr. Clinton on the defensive.
Mr. Bush's advisers had been urging him to use the draft issue as a way of planting seeds of doubts about Mr. Clinton's character. But he made only a brief reference to the controversy after the challenger decided to appear before the same audience -- a National Guard Association convention in Salt Lake City, Utah -- a couple of hours later.
Instead of attacking Mr. Clinton's candor on how he avoided the draft, the president chose to highlight his opponent's lack of military credentials by offering an emotional account of his own experience as a commander in chief who sent troops to battle Iraq.
"Bush blinked," said George Stephanopoulos, the Clinton spokesman. He contended the president wanted to avoid a confrontation with Mr. Clinton, who was prepared to counterpunch with the charge that the president was obsessed with Mr. Clinton's past while ignoring present and future economic problems.
With the president's campaign stalled at 12 to 15 percentage points behind Mr. Clinton in the polls, a draw is the same as a loss for Mr. Bush, the Clinton spokesman said.
But Bush aides claimed they had gained a tactical victory in forcing the Arkansas governor to defend himself before the convention in Utah, which he had earlier planned to skip. Mr. Clinton ignored the controversy in his speech, but the topic still dominated the day's campaign news.
"Clinton made a bad mistake -- he upped the issue," said James Pinkerton, a senior official in the Bush campaign. "Now he's getting press attention to the draft issue the day before, the day of and the day after the appearance. Any time that happens, it's good for us."
The draft issue, which has clouded Mr. Clinton's campaign since the primaries last winter, relates to a series of seemingly contradictory answers he has given to questions about how he happened to avoid military service during the Vietnam War.
Over the months, press investigations have unearthed new details about what the Bush campaign says adds up to a pattern of special efforts on Mr. Clinton's behalf to keep him out of the war during its most intense fighting. Mr. Clinton denies being aware of any such effort and says he has just mishandled his explanation of events that happened so long ago he barely remembers them.
"There's been a lot of controversy swirling around about service to country, about using influence to avoid the military, and I've read a great deal of speculation saying that I was going to come out here and use this forum to attack . . . Governor Clinton," Mr. Bush said yesterday morning. "I want to tell you I do feel very
strongly about certain aspects of the controversy swirling around Governor Clinton, but I didn't come here to attack him. I came to defend and support the National Guard."
Despite his disclaimer, Mr. Bush went on to draw a contrast between Mr. Clinton and Vice President Dan Quayle, who was also accused of using family and political connections to avoid front-line military service during the Vietnam War.
The president said Mr. Quayle was attacked "unmercifully" during the campaign four years ago because he spent the Vietnam War serving in the Indiana National Guard, which at the time was considered safe duty because very few guardsmen -- only about 100 -- were sent to Vietnam. Mr. Bush noted yesterday that only four Guard members were killed during the war, out of a total of 58,000 American deaths.
"But he stood his ground and he answered every question calmly and with candor," Mr. Bush said of Mr. Quayle. "And he told the truth, and this is service to the country."
Mr. Bush said these questions "matter because, despite all our problems at home, we can never forget that we ask our presidents to lead the military, to bear the awful authority of deciding to send your sons and daughters in harm's way."
The president, a bomber pilot shot down in World War II, choked with emotion and for a moment or two seemed almost overcome as he read a letter from the mother of a Marine killed in a helicopter accident in the first few days of Operation Desert Storm and whose body was never found.
During his remarks, Gov. Clinton tried to match the military theme by recalling his experience as "commander-in-chief of the Arkansas National Guard," which ranked third in the nation in the number of members sent to the Middle East during the Persian Gulf war.