Even as President George Bush insisted at the weekend that he wanted a clean, issue-based campaign, his political proxies tried again to undermine the credibility of the Democrat nominee, Bill Clinton, by reviving the debate over whether or not he dodged the draft during the Vietnam War.
Sharing an audience with Mr Bush in Provo, Utah, Senator Jake Garn ridiculed Mr Clinton and his running mate, Al Gore, as 'a team of pretty boys'. He added that Mr Clinton had decided against fleeing to Canada in 1968 to ensure avoidance of the Vietnam draft, only because 'at 23 he was thinking of his future political career'.
Mr Garn, with Mr Bush only yards away, went on: 'We don't need those kinds of politicians in either political party, so let's vote for those candidates who have the courage of their convictions.'
Later, a Bush campaign spokewoman said raising the Clinton draft issue was 'fair game'.
Mr Clinton dismissed the 'tax- and-spend liberal' tag as predictable. 'That is the only word they know,' Mr Clinton said. 'They don't have a record to run on. They don't have a plan for America's future . . . It's their knee-jerk thing. All they say is liberal.'
Obviously shaken by Mr Clinton's climb in the polls, with some putting him ahead of the President by as much as 27 percentage points, the Republicans are scrambling to strike back and re- establish the standing of their own Bush-Quayle team.
Between now and the Republican convention in Houston in mid-August, Mr Bush is scheduled to spend some days every week visiting states, while Vice- President Dan Quayle was dispatched even before the weekend to several south-eastern states.
Aside from attempting to portray Mr Clinton as a high-spending, big-government liberal in disguise, the Republicans are expected this week to concentrate their offensive on the economy.
Aides hopes that Mr Bush will move quickly to repackage his programme for economic revival which he first presented to Congress in January.
Mr Clinton and Mr Gore, determined to hold on to their advantage, are midway through a bus tour of eight eastern and rust- belt states, which left New York on Friday and winds up in St Louis, Missouri, on Wednesday. Their caravan of buses, emblazoned with 'Clinton-Gore 92', headed west across Pennsylvania over the weekend.
In a trip that evokes the spirit of old-style whistle-stop campaigning, the Clinton-Gore duo made frequent halts at town halls and road-side truck stops to preach their message of change.
Both Mr Clinton and Mr Bush are continuing their pitch to win over erstwhile supporters of Ross Perot, who never declared his candidacy but was leading the polls only three weeks ago. First indications of polls since his withdrawal last Thursday suggest that a large majority of his followers would vote for Mr Clinton.
Though no longer a candidate for the White House, Mr Perot may remain an important factor in the election. He has asked volunteers to continue putting his name on state ballots and spent the weekend in Dallas meeting Perot state co-ordinators to discuss ways of keeping his grass-roots movement alive.
Though still vague on detail, Mr Perot has suggested that by remaining together, his volunteers could become a vital swing-vote in November. They would urge the presidential candidates and those running for Congress to take on board their policy demands in return for their endorsement before polling day. It would not be established as a party as such but as a political movement. Names under consideration are 'American Eagles' and 'Owners of America'.
James Carville, the Clinton campaign manager, yesterday mocked the Republicans for harking back to the already well-worn Vietnam issue. 'These people are stuck in the past. They are talking about 1969; they can't get out of it. They yearn for the past.'
Bob Teeter, his Republican counterpart, played down the opinion poll results. 'It will be when we're through our convention in August and in the first part of September when we'll see where this race is going,' he commented. He then began the assault against Mr Clinton's economic plan. 'When you look at it carefully, he has some kind of big- government solution for almost everything: more taxes, more spending and a total give-up on the federal deficit.'
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