Addressing a National Guard convention in Salt Lake City, Mr Bush refrained from attacking Mr Clinton directly over the draft issue, centred on the confused explanations given by the Arkansas Governor of how he avoided service in Vietnam in 1969 to study at Oxford. The President implied, however, that Mr Clinton may not be qualified to head US forces in crisis.
In an occasionally emotional address, the President said the issue of national service mattered, 'because, despite of all our problems at home, we can never forget that we ask our presidents to lead the military, to bear the awful authority of deciding to send your sons and daughters in harm's way'.
By choosing to avoid direct criticism of Mr Clinton's military record, the President none the less defused an expected clash between the candidates on the draft issue. Mr Clinton had rearranged his own campaign schedule to address the meeting just after the President, but was able himself to drop any mention of his Vietnam history.
The Clinton camp continues to be buoyed by polls indicating that its candidate is holding a solid lead over the President or even building on it. The latest, released yesterday by ABC TV and the Washington Post, gave Mr Clinton a 15-point advantage over Mr Bush, by 54 per cent to 39 per cent. The same poll conducted seven days earlier showed the lead standing at 12 points.
Meanwhile, the economy remains the overriding issue of concern among voters, over and above any character questions so far stirred up by the draft controversy. And, by any measure, Mr Clinton seems certain to benefit most from popular preoccupation with the economy.
According to the ABC-Post poll, 59 per cent of voters think economic conditions are worsening and among these Mr Clinton is leading 69 per cent to 23 per cent.
Emphasising the responsibility faced by presidents considering sending Americans into war, and recollecting his own dilemmas during the Gulf war, Mr Bush appeared close to tears as he read from a letter sent to him by a mother who lost her son in the Gulf: 'You get letters like these and you could almost see the faces - faces of youth and innocence.'
Freed of the obligation to defend his draft record, Mr Clinton used his speech to counter the charge that he would not measure up to the demands on the president as commander-in-chief. Acknowledging that every president faces the possibility of sending Americans into combat, he declared: 'It is not a prospect that I relish, but neither do I shrink from it.'
Of all the issues under debate in the election, the draft matter seemingly remains the one most likely to threaten the Arkansas Governor. His attempts to shake it off as a campaign question seem so far to have been in vain.
More than the simple question of whether Mr Clinton should or should not have served in Vietnam, there is the wide perception that he has failed repeatedly to give a full answer to questions concerning the circumstances of his draft deferment that allowed him to study at Oxford in 1969. He admitted in a radio interview on Monday that his response to the affair had not been brilliant. 'I think I could have handled it a lot better, but I haven't ever tried to mislead anybody,' he remarked.
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