An unswayed VFW fails to back Bush


voters eye economy

September 18, 1992|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Staff Writer

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Despite repeated Republican attacks, the draft issue appears not to have seriously hurt Bill Clinton, as was illustrated yesterday when the Veterans of Foreign Wars cited more important concerns and declined to endorse President Bush.

The group, which endorsed Mr. Bush in 1988, didn't endorse Mr. Clinton either, but gave him hope that the draft controversy would not overshadow other issues.

While public opinion experts say it's still too early to predict the ultimate impact of the issue, voters so far seem much more concerned with the economy.

The draft issue, which reflects on Mr. Clinton's candor in explaining his actions during the Vietnam War era, may also be confusing voters because of its complexity; it dates back 23 years and requires a lawyerly mind to sort out.

And there is evidence in polls that any doubts about Mr. Clinton may be offset by concerns about Mr. Bush's credibility on such issues as the Iran-contra scandal.

For the VFW, which endorsed Republicans in the three previous elections, a more important issue than Mr. Clinton's draft record is how the federal government deals with veterans.

"We are aware of the draft-dodging controversy that has dogged [Arkansas] Governor Clinton, and have not overlooked the honorable military service of President Bush," the group said. But veterans' concerns "cannot be condensed into one issue."

Implicitly criticizing the Bush administration, the VFW's political arm said veterans' interests "include not only honorable military service, but [Veterans Administration] health care access and eligibility, and veterans' compensation and pensions."

And taking a slap at Veterans Affairs Secretary Edward J. Derwinski, the group also said it was "important to the VFW that our next president appoint a secretary of veterans affairs who is considered veteran-friendly."

Despite this setback, Republicans sought to capitalize on the draft issue by highlighting an angry statement about Mr. Clinton released by retired Army Col. Eugene J. Holmes to some newspapers Wednesday night. He had directed the ROTC program at the University of Arkansas that Mr. Clinton signed up for -- which kept him out of the draft for a time -- but never joined.

Mr. Holmes, who said only last year that Mr. Clinton was "treated just like I would have treated any other kid," now charges that the young Mr. Clinton "deceived" him. The action, Mr. Holmes said, causes him "to question both his patriotism and integrity."

He also alleged that the office of former Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright applied pressure to help Mr. Clinton stay out of the service, an allegation that has never been proved and about which Mr. Fulbright has said he remembers nothing.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Mr. Holmes' assertions go "to the heart of why Bill Clinton should not be president," and he labeled the Democratic nominee "Mr. Doublespeak."

Despite Mr. Clinton's lead of 9 to 15 points in opinion polls, aides remain wary of the draft issue, which surfaced for the first time in this year's New Hampshire primary and helped knock him out of first place in that contest.

"I have a healthy respect for the issue because I lived through New Hampshire," said Clinton pollster Stan Greenberg.

"I never look away," he added. "I'm constantly looking for signs of a problem, but frankly I can't find it."

A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll found that voters by a 2-to-1 margin are satisfied with Mr. Clinton's explanation of his draft record. Similarly, the latest New York Times/CBS News poll showed that 79 percent of voters won't let the draft issue affect their vote.

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll suggested greater public skepticism, finding voters evenly split over Mr. Clinton's explanation.

But the Journal poll also found evidence that Mr. Bush has a greater credibility problem concerning the Iran-contra scandal: 58 percent of voters said they had "major doubts" about his explanation of his role in the affair as vice president.

Though the various poll findings aren't favorable yet, Republicans still believe the draft issue will help them. They intend to raise it in campaign speeches and in advertisements, hoping voters will eventually pay more attention.

Indeed, many in both parties suspect the public still hasn't focused on the issues or made up their minds about the candidates.

'I would expect that given the way this campaign is unfolding, XTC it's going to be a late-breaking election, with people making their decision late in the campaign," said GOP pollster Vince Breglio.

Whether Mr. Clinton gets mangled by the issue depends partly on how well he keeps voters' minds on the economy. To date, he's been successful.

"The economy is overshadowing . . . everything," said independent pollster J. Bradford Coker, president of Mason-Dixon Opinion Research in Columbia, Md. "People are voting their pocketbook."

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