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Voters may look past draft issue

At American Legion Post 21, the veterans are proud they put their own lives on the line, but they don't begrudge Bill Clinton's decision to avoid the draft for the Vietnam War.

"Anyone that would try to get out of Vietnam is okay with me," said Vietnam veteran Carl Lininger, 42, as he sat in the Legion Post's smoke-filled barroom Thursday afternoon.

Over the last eight days, Clinton has seen his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination embroiled in controversy over his successful attempt to avoid the war. On Wednesday, Clinton released a letter he wrote in 1969 that thanked an ROTC admissions officer for "saving me from the draft" by allowing him to sign up for an officer training course. Clinton never attended the course and eventually exposed himself to the draft, but was not called up.

The Clinton episode reopens a debate that has become common in American life and American politics. The debate touch-es on patriotism, an issue used in President Bush's flag-waving 1988 campaign, but also returns everyone to the agonizing Vietnam era and the years since.

Proof that Americans often choose military men as presidents is as old as Goerge Washington and as recent as George Bush, the latest in the line of World War II veterans in the White House. But voters seem to approach Vietnam service differently, and don't see it as a litmus test of leadership abilities.

Indeed, the fact that veterans aren't upset by the Clinton letter is a sign that voters have moved past the war and want answers to today's problems.

"If that had been World War II, and he tried to pull it, I might have felt different. But not with Vietnam. It's a war we shouldn't have been in," said Roger Miner, a 63-year-old World War II veteran having a beer at the American Legion hall.

"I don't think it's his patriotism (at issue), because patriotism is more than saying "my country, right or wrong,'

" said Ken Leidner, 40, who leads the Central New Hampshire chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America. "I don't hold any ill will against him."

The conflicting attitudes about Vietnam are reflected in the way one of Clinton's rivals, Vietnam war hero Bob Kerrey, handled the issue on Thursday. Rather than hitting Clinton head on, Kerrey said he sympathized with the difficult decision Clinton and other young men his age had to make, but also recalled the unfriendly reception Vietnam veterans received when they came home.

"I was in the Philadelphia Naval hospital in 1969 when Bill Clinton was going through all this," said Kerrey, who lost part of his leg in the war.

Kerrey, trying to find a message that will invigorate his sluggish campaign, said, "I don't want to reopen the wounds of Vietnam," but he went on to make an argument that his military record could help him beat Bush in November.

As he stood in front of an American flag, Kerrey said at a news conference: "I just think it's going to be difficult for somebody to say they love America more than I do." One of Kerrey's television commercials argues he can win in November, in part because "no one can question his patriotism."

In 1988, Bush visited flag factories and often began campaign events with the Pledge of Allegiance as part of an effort to raise doubts about Democrat Michael Dukakis' values.

This year, Bush is using the Persian Gulf war in his re-election strategy. Kerrey and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin both opposed the war last year. Clinton was for it.

Though the specifics of Clinton's draft evasion may not hurt him, it is the latest piece of negative news voters have learned recently about the Arkansas governor. The draft issue arose soon after he had to deny allegations by a woman who said she had an affair with him. Once the front-runner in New Hampshire, he has fallen badly in the public opinion polls and there are fears the draft issue will hurt him in the more conservative South.

"I've said before that all these things that have come out raise serious questions as to his veracity and his character," said Iowa Sen. Harkin, a Vietnam-era Navy pilot who is seeking the nomination.

If anything, voters interviewed here Thursday sounded tired of hearing about the candidates' personal problems and instead want the troubled economy addressed in the final days before the Feb. 18 primary. At the American Legion Post, amid the "thwack" of the cue ball on the pool table, the veterans talked about putting the candidate's war record aside.

"If he's qualified to be president in all the other ways, this wouldn't make any difference to me," said William Ahern, a 59-year-old Korean War veteran.