WASHINGTON -- President Bush's decision to play the patriotism card against Democratic nominee Bill Clinton has raised the stakes significantly in the first debate at St. Louis tomorrow night.
Mr. Bush's criticism of Mr. Clinton's role in demonstrations against the war in Vietnam and a trip to Moscow 23 years ago assures that the news media will be focused most intensely on that bit of history rather than the differences between the two candidates on the central issue of the campaign, the condition of the economy and what to do about it. And that, in turn, presents the Democratic challenger with both a risk and an opportunity.
If Mr. Clinton can repudiate the suggestions of disloyalty in a forceful and convincing manner, he may effectively inoculate himself for the rest of the campaign against any further Republican attacks lacking a demonstrably damaging factual basis. It is the kind of opportunity to demonstrate personal force Michael S. Dukakis was given -- and failed to exploit -- when he was asked in 1988 how he would react if his wife, Kitty, were raped and murdered.
The risk to the Democratic candidate lies in the possibility he will leave the kind of unanswered questions about the episode that have plagued him through so much of the year in dealing with his history of avoiding the draft. The first debate is virtually certain to have the largest audience either candidate will enjoy at any time in the campaign -- and many of those tens of millions will be trying to decide whether the youthful governor of Arkansas is a safe bet in the Oval Office.
There is even greater risk for Mr. Bush, as he gropes for an issue to use against Mr. Clinton. The president will be under considerable pressure to provide some legitimate basis for his questions about Mr. Clinton's role in the demonstrations and trip to Moscow. If he cannot deliver, Mr. Bush can expect an even harsher backlash of criticism than he has suffered in the past 48 hours -- and at a time when his campaign seems to be spinning out of control.
There were already signs of the president slightly on the defensive yesterday based on two elements of the political situation. The first is the abundant evidence that voters this year are more alert to diversions and negativism than they were when they allowed candidate George Bush to bury Mr. Dukakis under his history on the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, the Willie Horton affair and being "a card-carrying member" of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Because of their preoccupation with the economy, voters have signaled repeatedly that they want a serious discussion of the issues. That was apparent in the early response to Democratic candidate Paul E. Tsongas in the New Hampshire primary and later to Ross Perot before he backed out of the race in July.
The second political problem for Mr. Bush is the company he is keeping. The questions about Mr. Clinton have been pressed largely by the extremist fringe of his party represented by three ,, California Republicans -- Robert Dornan, who suggested on the basis of what he conceded was "surmise" that Mr. Clinton must have been in touch with the KGB on the trip to Moscow; Duncan Hunter, who said that in George Washington's day Mr. Clinton would be subject "to a charge of treason;" and Randy Cunningham, who said "Tokyo Rose has nothing on Bill Clinton."
The first sign of some queasiness in the White House came when Mr. Bush used an appearance on a television morning show to essentially back away from the suggestions there was something sinister in the trip to Moscow. "If he's told all there is to tell on Moscow, fine," Mr. Bush said. "I'm not suggesting anything unpatriotic about that. A lot of people went to Moscow. That's the end of that one as far as I'm concerned."
But the president continued to press his case on Mr. Clinton's role in the demonstrations against the war -- while simultaneously insisting he was not impugning the Democrat's patriotism. "I want to make very clear I'm not questioning his patriotism," he said. "It's not a question of patriotism. That's the oldest ploy in the world to throw up that flag trying to change the debate."
But patriotism clearly was the issue as Mr. Bush also said: "I just don't think it's right to demonstrate on foreign soil or mobilize demonstrations -- I believe that's the word he used -- against your country's policies from foreign soil."
Mr. Bush and his surrogates tried to cast the debate in terms of questions about Mr. Clinton's judgment and veracity. Mary Matalin, his deputy campaign manager, accused Mr. Clinton of "a pathological pattern of deception."