WASHINGTON -- The entrance into the 1996 presidential race of Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, a fiery Republican conservative who sat out the Vietnam War after obtaining a series of draft deferments, has rekindled a divisive debate:
Does it matter if the commander in chief, the only American empowered to order troops into combat, did not serve in the military and may have actively avoided service when the nation was at war?
The issue has already cropped up in New Hampshire, the first presidential primary state, making the 1996 campaign the third consecutive election in which political professionals have had to grapple with the question.
Perhaps because it involves issues that are slightly different each time for each candidate, however, no consensus has emerged.
"The issue of the draft matters if it becomes a symbol for broader character issues," says Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who worked for Bill Clinton in the 1992 campaign -- and is polling on this question again for 1996.
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who spent nearly six years in Hanoi prisons after his plane was shot down during the Vietnam War, does not really disagree, but he has fashioned a different, more precise yardstick.
For him, the crucial question is whether a presidential candidate attempted to pull strings not available to ordinary citizens in order to avoid combat.
This was the accusation, never substantiated, leveled at Dan Quayle in 1988, when George Bush chose the youthful Indiana senator as his running mate.
Mr. Bush was a war hero who had enlisted as a teen-ager as soon as the bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor, but Mr. Quayle, like many well-off young men of his generation, avoided Vietnam, first by going to college, then by enlisting in the National Guard.
Four years later, there was a crescendo in the debate when it turned out that Bill Clinton misled his draft board about his intentions, organized anti-war demonstrations in England and in a 1969 letter wrote of "loathing" the military.
Nothing of that nature has surfaced about Mr. Gramm.
But at least one lower-tier GOP presidential candidate, conservative California Rep. Robert K. Dornan, has already taken pot shots at Mr. Gramm -- just as he did at Bill Clinton three years ago.
When Mr. Clinton won the 1992 election, many political observers believed that this issue had been put to rest.
But it has been reopened by the candidacy of Mr. Gramm, who, when asked why he took five student and teaching deferments during Vietnam, responded that it didn't "make sense" for him to enlist or allow himself to be drafted.
A grating answer
"Being from a military family," he said, "I never saw, if I had joined the Army, that I would have gone to Vietnam.
"I would have been working in some library or some research institute in the Army. I thought what I was doing at Texas A&M was important."
The answer struck critics -- and some friends -- as elitist. It also galled some military people, because it sounded as though Mr. Gramm was saying he somehow paid his dues through his father and brother, both of whom were in the service.
"That's absurd," said retired Marine Lt. Col. William Corson, a former military history instructor at the Naval Academy. "He isn't giving to the United Way! . . ."
Even Mr. McCain, who is personally close to Mr. Gramm and the national chairman of his presidential campaign, winced when he heard his friend's answer.
"I think Phil Gramm should have said, 'I received deferments. Period.' " said Mr. McCain. "Not talk about his brother or anything else.
". . . That's the way he should have handled it. I told him that before. I've told him since, and I think he's no longer saying it that way."
Democrats who worked on the 1992 campaign felt a sense of deja vu: Mr. Gramm's defensiveness reminded them of how candidate Clinton responded to the same question.
"It hurts Gramm, or any candidate, if they demonstrated clear class differences between themselves and the electorate," said Ms. Lake.
She recently completed a poll showing that while 38 percent of Americans believe how a candidate dealt with the draft is not important, roughly 30 percent say that it's "extremely" important.
That group is disproportionately made of up Southerners, conservatives, war veterans and members of what author and self-described military brat Mary Edwards Wertsch calls "The Fortress" -- the 10 million career military and their families.
It was this last group, especially, that reacted against Bill Clinton.
It is this group that might well find Mr. Gramm's answer unsatisfactory despite his hawkishness on national security issues.
This is especially true because Mr. Gramm is not running in a vacuum; he will be matching, not just his ideas, but his resume against other candidates with different records.
One of the Republicans seeking the GOP nomination is Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. In 1943, at 19, Mr. Dole left his home in Russell, Kan., and entered the Army as an infantryman.