Quayle under fire in draft row

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IT HAD to happen. With Republican guns fixed on Bill Clinton's stream of evasions on his draft record, the spotlight has swung back to the less-than-heroic feat of Vice-President Dan Quayle in securing a place in the Indiana National Guard which kept him from being sent to Vietnam.

Taking a fresh look at a controversy which flared in the 1988 election campaign, the New York Times asserted yesterday that the story of Mr Quayle's assignment to the essentially home-based militia showed a 'striking pattern of favouritism'. The paper said there were long waiting lists for the Guard of people seeking to avoid the draft. Mr Quayle, however, jumped the queue and was swiftly installed at the headquarters unit of the Guard in Indiana.

Yesterday Mr Quayle, one of Mr Clinton's most vociferous critics on the draft issue, rejected the latest charges as a 'rehash' of old news. Never, he insisted, had he asked for special treatment and he had 'laid the facts on the table'.

The heart of the matter was not avoidance of military service, argued the Vice-President, but was the 'veracity' of the Democratic candidate's account of events in 1968 and 1969 - Mr Clinton's alleged untrustworthiness which the Republicans are desperately trying to use to chip away at his commanding lead in the polls.

In recent days Mr Clinton has come under fresh pressure, above all in a sworn affidavit by a former recruitment officer in Arkansas that the young Bill Clinton had 'purposely deceived' him in his efforts to escape the draft. There was, claimed the former Lt Col Eugene Holmes, 'the imminent danger of a draft-dodger becoming the commander-in-chief of the US armed forces'.

This weekend Mr Clinton secured the endorsement of Admiral William Crowe, former chairman of the military chiefs of staff under Presidents Reagan and Bush, and a Vietnam veteran. But that success was offset by harsh words from America's most recent military hero, the Gulf war commander, Norman Schwarzkopf, who questioned Mr Clinton's credentials. 'How does a person who admits he deliberately did not agree with a war, handle it if he has to send other people to war,' wondered General Schwarzkopf in a radio interview yesterday.

But the overriding issue of the campaign is the economy; and polls suggest voters are as concerned by Mr Bush's truthfulness about his involvement in that more recent but no less intricate saga, the Iran-Contra affair, as they are over Mr Clinton's efforts to avoid the draft 23 years ago.

'One of the things I've learnt,' said Admiral Crowe in Little Rock on Saturday, 'is that you want to be judged on your whole life, not something you did 23 years ago'. The Republicans, he alleged, were using the draft controversy as a diversion.

But the draft issue will not go away. Faced with overwhelming disapproval of his economic record, and 10 points or more adrift in the polls, Mr Bush's best hope of securing re-election is to paint his opponent in even less flattering colours than himself. Mr Clinton's draft record, muddied daily by a drip of new details, fits the bill perfectly.