They came, they saw, they blinked.
An anticipated face-off between President Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton over Clinton's Vietnam War-era draft record failed to materialize Tuesday as both candidates shied away from a direct confrontation over the issue.
Speaking before a convention of the National Guard Assn. here, Bush referred to questions about Clinton and the draft, but only in a sideways fashion. Insisting that he "didn't come here to attack" his opponent, Bush added that he did "feel very strongly about certain aspects" of what he twice referred to as "the controversy swirling around" Clinton.
Bush aides afterward detailed to reporters their contentions that Clinton had been less than candid in dealing with the draft issue, and they seemed determined to keep the issue alive as a question of Clinton's credibility.
But Bush sought to frame his speech in a somewhat different context--emphasizing the tests, trials and responsibilities that face the nation's commander in chief in what strategists described as an attempt to show voters a "stature gap" between the two candidates.
"We can never forget that we ask our presidents to lead the military, to make the awful choices of asking your sons and daughters to go into harm's way," Bush said. His voice choking with emotion, he emphasized the point by reading to the crowd a letter from a woman whose son had died during the Persian Gulf War.
Because of that duty, he said, Americans must hold aspirants to the White House "to the highest standard."
Clinton appeared before the group next. During the night, his aides had drafted a three-minute introductory section for his speech in which he would once again defend his conduct but would admit he had done a poor job in answering questions about it.
At the beginning of his presidential campaign, Clinton had said it was "a fluke" that he wasn't drafted. Subsequent media stories, however, made clear that the facts were far more complicated.
Friends and family lobbied to delay his induction, and once he did receive an induction notice, Clinton engaged in several stratagems that effectively kept him out of the Army until he drew a high lottery number.
One of those stratagems was signing up for an ROTC unit at the University of Arkansas, which he subsequently did not join.
But after sitting with aides in his hotel room listening to Bush speak, Clinton decided to toss aside the plan to explain himself once more. Instead, Clinton talked about the importance of the National Guard in the nation's overall military structure--a topic Bush had also addressed--then launched into a rendition of his by-now-standard economic stump speech.
The choice facing voters, he told the guard members, was "not just between two candidates" but between two different visions of the nation's future--a Republican vision that focuses on keeping tax rates low and trusts the marketplace to ensure prosperity and a Democratic vision that would employ a partnership between business and labor and a more activist government to bring about an economic renewal.
Later in the day, Clinton emphasized the same points in a speech to several thousand students and others on the campus of San Jose State University--the first stop on a two-day California campaign swing that will include several stops in Los Angeles today.
While in San Jose, Clinton also received endorsements from several leading executives in the area's high-technology industry, including Apple Computer Inc. chief executive John Sculley and John Young, the chief executive of Hewlett-Packard Corp.
Bush, for his part, left Utah for a campaign swing through Colorado and New Mexico, both states that Clinton plans to visit later in the week as the challenger shadows the President through major battleground states.
Tuesday's appearances almost certainly will not be the last word on the draft controversy. Almost as soon as Bush finished speaking, his aides sought to press the attack behind the scenes. A senior official accused Clinton of a "very gross lack of truthfulness" about the steps he took to avoid the draft.
Predictably, both sides claimed victory from the non-debate.
Clinton's aides fanned out after the speech to tell reporters that Bush's failure to attack Clinton head-on shows that the Republicans know voters do not want the election to turn into a debate about past conduct.
"People want this election to be about the economy," said Clinton strategist Paul Begala.
Bush strategists insisted that their man had succeeded in taking the offensive on the issue. "They had to dance on our dance card, that's a win," said a senior White House official. Bush campaign spokeswoman Torie Clarke added: "It's not a good opportunity for Clinton because it keeps the draft issue going."
Bush conceded some ground to Clinton, saying it was "not at all" imperative that a future President first experience battle himself. But he also made clear his determination not to let rest the broad issues of military service and the draft. And his remarks, while subtle at times, carried a stiletto-like edge.
Even as he downplayed the importance of military service, Bush spoke of those who had "never seen the awful horror of battle." And as he expressed hope that the next President need not send Americans into battle, he reminded his audience that that "awful decision" was one that he already "had to face twice."
Some Bush advisers had pressed for the President to raise Clinton's draft record in a far blunter fashion. But Chief of Staff James A. Baker III and others were said to have argued that it would be more effective for the President, at least for now, to leave such attacks to surrogates.
Separately, campaign sources have made it clear that the Bush camp has already settled on a rough timetable calling for Vice President Dan Quayle, paid television commercials and Bush to raise the issue in turn.
Quayle, campaigning in Sioux Falls, S.D., accused Clinton of again ducking questions about the draft issue.
"Bill Clinton and his campaign had led us to believe that he was going to answer the questions concerning the draft," Quayle told reporters during a visit to McKennan Hospital. "Once again, Bill Clinton has misled us.
"Bill Clinton is simply going to have to come clean with the American people," he said.
Times staff writer Paul Richter in Sioux Falls contributed to this story.
Today on the Trail . . .
Gov. Bill Clinton campaigns in Los Angeles and Baldwin Park.
Sen. Al Gore campaigns in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Dayton, Ohio
President Bush is in Washington, D.C.
Vice President Dan Quayle campaigns in Milwaukee and Racine, Wis.
Hillary Clinton is on "The Home Show," ABC, 10 a.m.