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Clinton tries to turn focus back to issues

Bill Clinton looks tired.

He has just four days to persuade New Hampshire voters that they must choose a presidential candidate based on his plans for the country, not on his past. And he hopes to convince those voters that the Clinton plan is best.

As Clinton gave speeches and schmoozed in coffee shops Thursday, he was greeting people who had read with interest a letter Clinton wrote in 1969 denouncing the war in Vietnam and agonizing about how to avoid the draft without breaking the law. The letter was published in newspapers nationwide after Arkansas military officials accused Clinton of deception and draft-dodging as a 22-year-old Rhodes scholar.

"I was very impressed with the contents of the letter from a man so young," said Pat Parker, 65, who drove more than an hour to Concord to hear Clinton speak to retirees about health care.

Although she hasn't made up her mind how to vote in the nation's first presidential primary Tuesday, Mrs. Parker said she is sick of the accusations that Clinton is a womanizer and draft dodger, and she is sorry they have hurt his campaign.

"I hear enough of that wherever I turn," she said. "I'd like to hear his ideas and his platform, because what I've heard so far, I like."

Clinton talked about ideas Thursday, over and over, to the retirees, to the New Hampshire Legislature and to an auditorium full of high school students screaming, "We want Bill."

Anyone hearing Clinton for the first time would not have noticed that his speeches were a bit subdued and his charm less gregarious. He sounded a tad distracted. There was no smell of death in the campaign; just anxiety and exhaustion.

When voters had a chance to question Clinton, they wanted to know about budget deficits, nuclear energy and Medicare costs. But then a man at a meeting of the American Association of Retired Persons asked whether the Democrats really think they can run a race on issues when President Bush has vowed to do whatever it takes to win. So Clinton got to make his case.

He said the answer is largely up to New Hampshire voters. They should send a clear signal that they are ignoring negativity and scandal and are casting their votes for a brighter future, he said. He compared electing a president to hiring an employee.

"What I want you to do is hire somebody who can change your life, who can bring us together, who can lift us up, who can make us a better country," he said. "Can he make you feel good again and excited again and full of potential again and happy to be Americans again _ not because we solve all our problems but because at least we're not dragged down in the muck of division, bringing out what is worst in us, (but instead) coming together, trying to bring out what is best in us?"

Ruddy-cheeked volunteers who stood on frigid street corners waving Clinton signs _ and getting some honks of support _ said they believe in the Arkansas governor more than ever now because he has been baptized by fire. They quickly blamed Republicans and reporters for his problems.

In a new television commercial, Clinton reminded voters that he eventually stood for the draft and got a high lottery number. He also said _ again _ that Gennifer Flowers was paid big bucks (an estimated $150,000) for her tabloid story about an affair with him. The commercial also claims: "The president's Republican operatives were involved in promoting the untrue story to destroy Bill Clinton."

An incensed Vice President Dan Quayle denied it and said, "Bill Clinton knows better."

Chris Spirou, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said the issue of Clinton's character is further confusing the race. "We have a very volatile electorate out there," he said.

But a few hours spent with Clinton didn't reveal any voters in an uproar about the Vietnam draft issue. That includes the AARP members whose ideas about patriotism were forged by World War II.

"Vietnam was a different war," said A.

D. Copestakes, 69, an actuary. "The least tolerant are the ones who were dragged screaming and kicking to the draft."

Allen Mayville, 75, said his three sons served in Vietnam. They survived, but, "They didn't talk about it for a long time. They weren't proud of it."