Bush steps up attack on Clinton draft record Polls show president continuing to slip

September 22, 1992|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Assailed by fresh evidence his campaign is in continuing and perhaps deepening trouble, President Bush has raised the stakes sharply by accusing Democrat Bill Clinton of a "total failure to come clean with the American people" on the history of his efforts to avoid the draft during the war in Vietnam.

Mr. Clinton, the president told a radio interviewer, "has not told the full truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth" about the episode.

Mr. Bush's statements represented a decided escalation of Republican attempts to exploit the draft issue -- and an obvious attempt to entice the Democratic nominee into a dialogue that would turn attention from the debate over the economy.

Heretofore, the president has tried to remain conspicuously above the fray -- as he did in a speech to the National Guard Association last week -- while relying on such surrogates as Vice President Dan Quayle and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole to take Mr. Clinton to task directly.

Bush campaign officials said the new initiative was, as senior adviser Charles Black put it, "unscripted." But they acknowledged that the president and his campaign team have felt frustrated in their efforts to make clear that the issue is not simply whether Mr. Clinton avoided the draft in 1969 but whether he has been candid in dealing with questions about that period in 1992.

Mr. Bush, one adviser said, "has felt it's fair game to say there are questions about it" that should be answered. But polls have that more than 80 percent of the voters don't think the draft issue is relevant to their decision Nov. 3.

The president's decision to turn up the heat on the draft question also reflected a recognition among Republican professionals, in the Bush campaign and elsewhere, that the attempt to persuade the electorate Mr. Bush has a coherent economic plan has not succeeded despite several major speeches intended to make that point.

On the contrary, evidence poured in over the weekend of new opinion polls suggesting Mr. Bush is losing rather than gaining ground. Bush campaign advisers continued to insist they believe Mr. Clinton's lead is down "in single digits." But a new survey made for ABC News and the Washington Post showed Mr. Bush trailing 58 percent to 37 percent, a widening of the margin by 6 percentage points in the past week.

There was also a spate of state polls completed last week reinforcing the perception of the Bush campaign as an enterprise in serious trouble. They showed, for example, Mr. Bush running only even with Mr. Clinton in Florida and Indiana, ostensibly Republican bastions in presidential politics, and in Orange County, Calif., a notoriously conservative area in which Mr. Bush was leading by 10 percent last month.

More ominously for the Bush campaign, there were polls also showing Mr. Clinton leading by 19 points and 20 points, respectively, in two bellwether states, Illinois and Missouri, and by 10 points in Ohio, usually the most Republican of the industrial belt states of the Midwest.

Mr. Bush chose a hospitable forum for his direct attack on the draft history of Mr. Clinton: an interview with a radio talk show host, Rush Limbaugh, a stridently partisan Bush supporter and Clinton basher. Professing reluctance, the president dealt with the issue in blunt terms in an attempt to depict his Democratic rival as a risk as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

After faulting Mr. Clinton for failing to provide "the whole truth," he said: "And I have a very different concept of public service. I have a different concept of military service and I'm sure I would never call the military immoral."

"And I think that Governor Clinton ought to level with what happened on this and then elaborate on the letter that he wrote where he condemned the whole military as immoral and said that the only danger, only time he could see fighting would be if there was immediate danger, I think it was, I've got to paraphrase here, immediate danger to the shores of the United States," he added.

He had been forced to send troops to Panama and "to make a tough call in Desert Storm," Mr. Bush said, "and I believe that the commander-in-chief should not have a mind-set to say the military is immoral."

Mr. Bush was referring to the letter Mr. Clinton, then 23, wrote in 1969 to Col. Eugene Holmes, director of the Reserve Officers Training Corps at the University of Arkansas, to thank him for "saving me from the draft." But Mr. Clinton described the draft, not the military, as "illegitimate" rather than "immoral" in a case in which a war "does not involve immediately the peace and freedom of the nation."

The Democratic candidate, meanwhile, fended off the Bush rhetoric by citing the endorsement he received over the weekend from Adm. William J. Crowe, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Admiral Crowe has more credibility at truth-telling than George Bush," Mr. Clinton said.

Mr. Bush's position on the political defensive was emphasized by his campaign schedule today when he will make airport stops in six states: Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee and Louisiana.

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