The US Presidential Elections: Clinton riled by draft row

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The Independent Online
HE USUALLY laughs them off - sometimes with a forced giggle that perhaps fostered suspicion - but Bill Clinton lost patience yesterday with the repeated questions about anti-war activities during his Oxford student days. 'So what?' came the exasperated reply.

Mr Clinton's patience snapped at last during a joint appearance with his running-mate, Al Gore, yesterday morning with the national agony uncle, Phil Donahue. Mr Donahue had implied that the candidate had still not come clean on his anti-war affiliations.

Voicing a sentiment that may be common among voters, and corrosive to Mr Clinton's support, Mr Donahue ventured: 'There is once again evidence that Bill Clinton wants to impress and be beloved by everyone and we are right to ask these questions because we wonder what kind of leadership you will bring to the Oval Office.' The Clinton smile disappeared. 'You are wrong to ignore my entire public life, which you and a lot of other people have done, and to make up your own characterisations on this so that you can once again divert people from the things that will affect their lives,' he retorted.

But the US media are showing signs of restlessness as the campaign seems to be drifting towards a Clinton victory, and questions about Mr Clinton's past - even if they go back 23 years - are unlikely to go away. Doubtless some reporters are being egged on by scandal-mongers from the Republican Party.

Polls yesterday confirmed Mr Clinton's position as comfortable leader in the race, notably with a Los Angeles Times survey giving him 48 per cent of the vote over 34 per cent for President Bush and just 7 per cent for the Texan, Ross Perot. A poll for NBC television gave the Arkansas governor a 14-point lead.

Calm has settled over the campaign as both Mr Clinton and Mr Bush have started to withdraw from public appearances to spend time preparing for their first live television debate, on Sunday, in St Louis, with two more to follow. Mr Perot, who aired the first of a series of half-hour television advertisements on Tuesday, is expected to join in the debates.

Mr Clinton does seem to offer a little more detail on the events under scrutiny each time he is asked. To Mr Donahue, he gave the clearest admission yet that he attended anti-Vietnam rallies while at Oxford, one outside the US embassy in London. He acknowledged that he met a well-known peace activist, the Reverend Richard McSorley, in Oslo in late 1969, while on a trip that took him also to Moscow. And, yes, he said, he attended an anti-war meeting in Martha's Vineyard, in the US, weeks later. Media curiosity has been aroused by the revelation made this week by Newsweek that the FBI has been called in to investigate evidence that pages have gone missing from Mr Clinton's passport files held in the State Department in Washington. FBI sources have confirmed the story, but what the explanation for it can be is open to conjecture.

'I did not know there was a file kept on me or on any other American,' Mr Clinton replied.

And to the suggestion being pursued by some news organisations that the lost pages may hold evidence that he sought to change his nationality to avoid the Vietnam draft, he retorted: 'That's ridiculous.'

For both Mr Bush and Mr Clinton, preparations for the Sunday debate include full-blown rehearsals, with stand-ins playing the opposition. The President has reportedly cast John Sununu, his former Chief of Staff and now a CNN presenter, and the Budget Director, Richard Darman, as his opponents. In his mock debates, Mr Clinton is using a Washington lawyer, Robert Barnett, and a Democrat Representative, Mike Synar.