LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Times poll just out bring one piece of good news to Gov. Bill Clinton beyond the fat 21-point lead it gives him over President Bush in California. It finds that 75 percent of voters surveyed say Clinton's controversial draft record will have no effect on how they will cast their votes.
If this reaction to Clinton's admittedly erratic recollections on his draft record during the Vietnam war is shared around the country, the Bush-Quayle re-election campaign may be wasting its time attempting to hang Clinton with the issue.
Nevertheless, the Arkansas governor's draft record, and his lack of military service, obviously was on the audience's mind when first the president and then Clinton addressed the annual convention of the National Guard in Salt Lake City.
Somewhat surprisingly, Bush soft-pedaled the matter, saying that contrary to news-media expectations he was not going to use the forum to discuss the "controversy swirling around" allegations of Clinton's "using influence to avoid the military." Rather, he said, he was going to defend the National Guard and the charge that the Guard was used "as a haven for draft dodgers," raised in 1988 when Vice President Dan Quayle was "savagely attacked and ridiculed" for going into the Indiana National Guard.
The president did, however, say that such questions "matter because in spite of all our problems at home we can never forget we ask our presidents to lead the military, to bear the awful authority to decide to send your sons and daughters in harm's way."
Not every president has to do so, as he did in Panama and the Middle East, Bush said, "but every president might. Does this mean that if you've never seen the awful horror of battle you can't be commander in chief? Of course not. Not at all. But it does mean we must hold our presidents to the highest standard because they might have to decide if our sons and daughters should knock early on death's door."
Bush seemed to be suggesting that Clinton's lack of military service wasn't the issue, but that his dissembling on how he dealt with the draft was. This is how his re-election campaign has increasingly sought to frame the controversy -- that Clinton's imprecision in explaining his actions casts doubt on his trustworthiness and character.
Clinton, for his part, avoided the issue of his draft record entirely, choosing to contrast his plans for reducing the defense budget with Bush's. He claimed that the Guard would be treated better and used more efficiently in a Clinton administration, emphasizing its role in peacetime at home while praising its past actions in war abroad. He used what could have been a hostile forum to turn the discussion back to the issue the Los Angeles Times poll says is overwhelmingly on voters' minds -- the state of the economy under Bush.
What Bush said before the Guard is no guarantee that his campaign will now abandon or even soft-pedal the draft issue against Clinton. It signals that increasingly the focus will be on what his draft record says about whether he meets "the highest jTC standard" Bush said must be the yardstick for someone who may make life-and-death decisions about Americans facing death in combat.
It remains to be seen what other Republicans speaking as surrogates for the president continue to say about Clinton and the draft. Two days before he spoke to the Guard convention, Bush was in Anaheim at a big rally of California Republicans at which former President Ronald Reagan and Rep. Robert Dornan took potshots at the Clinton's handling of his draft record.
Reagan mildly chided Clinton about his memory of that record, but Dornan, himself a combat veteran notorious for his acid tongue, asked the crowd: "Does Bill Clinton have the moral authority to send fathers' and mothers' sons into combat? Does he have the authority to tell the Army band to strike up 'The Star-Spangled Banner?' "
In 1988, candidate Bush used the dodge of letting surrogates take the hardest raps at Michael Dukakis and then disavowing responsibility himself. But the big question is whether the draft issue can do for Bush what the Willie Horton prison furlough issue did for him four years ago.