Clinton off target on Patriots

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The Independent Online
PATRIOT missiles, as every American schoolboy knows, were the ones that shot down Iraqi Scuds in the Gulf war. Cruise missiles were the slow, lumbering ones, which turned street corners in Baghdad. Laser-guided missiles, or bombs, were the ones that went down drain-pipes. Such elementary military knowledge, it appears, has eluded two famously reluctant warriors involved in this year's US presidential race.

To the delight of Republicans, anxious to convert the contest into a campaign for commander-in-chief, the Democratic challenger, Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas, ad libbed his way to a military howler. Speaking in Connecticut, he said Americans had seen Patriot missiles 'going through doors and down chimneys' during the Gulf war. Wrong missile.

Quick as an anti-missile missile, the Vice-President, Dan Quayle, pounced on Mr Clinton's gaffe - and made his own. 'The problem,' he chortled, 'is that Bill Clinton didn't know the difference between the Patriot missile and the Cruise missile.' Still the wrong weapon.

Both men, celebrated avoiders of the Vietnam draft, can ill-afford to display such martial ignorance. Vice-President Quayle, who was deputy Commander- in-Chief throughout the Gulf war, has the more to be ashamed about. But the mistake may prove more damaging to Mr Clinton. With the opinion polls beginning to narrow, but still showing a considerable Clinton lead, Republican strategists believe Mr Clinton's avoidance of military service can be made into the 'Willie Horton' of the campaign. (Horton was a murderer who committed violent crimes while on a weekend parole granted by Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. Misleading references to the case in television advertisements were a central part of Mr Bush's victorious electoral strategy against Mr Dukakis in 1988).

The Bush-Quayle campaign is preparing a series of television advertisements recapping Governor Clinton's varying accounts of how he escaped being drafted into the Vietnam war in 1968-69.

The Republican dirty-tricks machine is moving into gear, especially in the South. Young Republicans in Alabama published a newsletter with a photograph of the Clinton family and a young, black boy who sang at the Democratic convention in July. 'Who is the short fellow with the bow tie?' the newsletter asked. 'Perhaps it is because I'm biased, certainly, but there's something non-presidential about the whole Clinton family.' The Bush campaign chairman, Rich Bond, declined to disavow the newsletter.