THE does not want to make a big issue of Gov. Bill Clinton's draft status during the Vietnam War, President Bush told radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh this week, "but it's not going to go away."
The Clinton draft record has become a major feature of the fall campaign, in part because new evidence has continued to surface, casting doubt on Governor Clinton's version of events.
Republicans are using the draft issue in three ways:
* They juxtapose Mr. President Bush's background as a war hero with Clinton's lack of military service.
* They point out his opposition to the war and use words such as "dodger" and "evasion" that conjure up images of radical peaceniks of the 1960s.
* And most of all, they use his draft record to question Clinton's trustworthiness.
Clinton raised the draft question himself last month in a speech to the American Legion in Chicago. "Can someone who has never served in the military be commander-in-chief?" he asked. The Arkansas governor answered by citing the examples of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, each of whom led the United States in a world war without the benefit of military experience.
Clinton is frank about his opposition to the Vietnam War. In a letter he wrote to a former Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program director in Arkansas in 1969, he acknowledged he "opposed and despised" the war and helped organize demonstrations against it. "I have written, spoken, and marched against the war," he wrote.
He also opposed the draft. But Clinton was against the Vietnam War draft only; he was no pacifist. In World War II, for example, he thought the draft was justified because "the life of the people collectively was at stake."
For years, Clinton's account of his own draft record was that he had a student deferment through his undergraduate years at Georgetown University and, as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, he was not called up because he got a high draft-lottery number.
THAT is not unusual; most men of Clinton's age were not drafted for any one of various reasons. But the story that has emerged during the campaign is significantly less straightforward.
When Clinton graduated from Georgetown in 1968, he became eligible for the draft. He went to England to attend Oxford and, in April, 1969, received a draft induction notice.
He only acknowledged receiving this notice last April after the Los Angeles Times cited evidence from a Little Rock attorney who was a fellow scholarship student with Clinton at Oxford. Clinton says that he received the notice late, after the report-for-duty date, so his draft board in Arkansas told him to ignore it.
When he returned home that summer, he made an oral commitment to Col. Eugene Holmes, director of the University of Arkansas ROTC, to enroll in law school at the University of Arkansas and join the ROTC. This meant he was again granted a deferred draft status.
Clinton only discussed his flirtation with the ROTC after the Wall Street Journal published accounts of it last February.
His draft notice must have been swept from the record, because ROTC slots were not available to men already drafted.
Clinton benefited from the ROTC deferral status during the months when he felt he was most at risk of getting drafted. But he never attended the University of Arkansas and never joined the ROTC.
Within a few months of his conversation with Colonel Holmes, he was back at Oxford. After the Wall Street Journal article appeared last February, Clinton explained that he had bouts of bad conscience over his deferral, that friends had died in Vietnam, and he felt he should no longer avoid the draft.
In September 1969, the odds against getting drafted improved. President Richard Nixon slowed down inductions drastically and allowed drafted graduate students to finish out the school year.
In late September or early October, Clinton says, he told his draft board to consider him eligible again. On Dec. 1, he drew a draft lottery number so high that he was certain not to be inducted. On Dec. 3, he wrote Holmes of his decision to risk the draft, rather than joining the ROTC.
The letter, made public last February, was long, frank, and thoughtful, but at odds with Clinton's own words on why he had submitted himself to the draft. In the letter, he thanked Holmes for "saving me from the draft" through the ROTC deferment and said he chose the draft over resistance "for one reason: To save my political viability within the system."
Much more was at work to keep Clinton from entering the Army as a conscript. At least six principal players have given accounts in recent months of an orchestrated lobbying campaign to keep Clinton out of the draft throughout his most vulnerable months at Oxford. Several have identified Clinton's uncle, well-connected car dealer Raymond Clinton, as the prime mover in the effort.
When the Los Angeles Times reported this a couple of weeks ago, Clinton said it was the first he had heard of it. But Trice Ellis, who commanded the local naval reserve unit, says he told Clinton of his uncle's campaign last March. Clinton now says he simply had no way of assessing the truth of Mr. Ellis's story at the time.