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Draft issue seems to be the only drum Bush can beat

Stormy weather greeted George Bush in Florida; he made some of his own. He raged and stormed against Bill Clinton, like the tornado that missed him by five miles in Clearwater. His subject was, appropriately, the draft, the only issue he seems to have at hand. "We're goin' after this guy," Bush shouted, as he leaped on the back of a police van in Orlando.

To what avail, it is not clear. His standing is precarious. He is ahead in the polls in this normally Republican state only by the margin of error; in 1988, he beat Michael Dukakis here by 23 points. Buddy MacKay, a former congressman who is now lieutenant governor, and Gov. Lawton Chiles' link to the Clinton campaign, says that Florida Republicans are in a state of "quiet outrage, because they got muscled around big time by the Robertson people."

"George Bush has had to choose sides," says MacKay, "and he has chosen the energy and enthusiasm of the fundamentalists and alienated mainstream Republicans."

The master of ceremonies for the sodden caravan was Gerald McRaney, television's "Major Dad," a soldierly figure who was to be defrocked by the day's end. He introduced the president as "the obvious candidate." He led chants of "Where was Bill?" at a Clearwater retirement community called On Top of the World, where the elders kept time to World War II oldies. The major told them smugly that he was of Bill Clinton's age group, but "not all of us turned out badly _ those who didn't do our duty at least stayed loyal to their country."

That seemed a little cryptic to the soggy scribes who were in his train, and a couple of them cornered him when they were in the pool that followed the official party closely. They asked him about his own military service.

It turned out that Major Dad is all dad and no major, and never served a day in his life. He wanted to, he explained to his interrogators, but because he was a dad, he couldn't be a major. Did he think that his want of service might disqualify him as a critic of a draft-dodger? He didn't think so. He has seen considerable action in the Bush campaign. He experienced first fire at the GOP convention where he introduced Marilyn Quayle. In view of the Florida divestiture, he may have to take early retirement.

Everyone was trying too hard. In a Fort Lauderdale hangar, for instance, were two bands competing for public attention. One was a snazzy five-piece combo, the other a school orchestra. Before the president's arrival, they filled the stifling hangar with the sound of conflicting music. When he appeared, neither managed to play Hail to the Chief.

The president had a little trouble getting his message out because there was a squad of chanters who drowned out much of what he said with manic cries of "Four More Years."

The flavor was military in the hangar. Bush was introduced by Col. Bud Day, a former POW and most decorated soldier. He laid down the artillery fire for the commander in chief to move in and make the kill.

The president unleashed his thunderbolts. Clinton is a victim of "Clintonesia . . . weak knees, sweaty palms, and an incredible desire to say anything on all sides of every issue, depending on who you are trying to please."

Bush looked well, spoke better than usual, and seemed to enjoy his drenching day of search and destroy, of nostalgia and negativism. The polls indicate that the voters are not so receptive any more. But what can he do? Florida's seniors, like others, may disapprove of Clinton's refusal to serve; the people in their generation fought their way into the service. They may worry about his character. But they think that they cannot afford their doubts in view of the gravity of the situation here and now, and they don't hear Bush talking about that.

Universal Press Syndicate