A hoarse but upbeat Bill Clinton, fresh from what he clearly regards as a debate victory, unveiled Monday a new slate of endorsements by top former military leaders even as he eyed independent candidate Ross Perot with increasing wariness.
Among the military men and women who endorsed the Democratic presidential nominee were a former head of the National Security Agency, an ex-Army chief of staff and two generals who played leading roles during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
In a joint statement, the retired military leaders said Clinton has "sound judgment, a strong sense of purpose, a clear understanding of national defense and a vision for our country's future."
Clinton, at a midday press conference, said the endorsements will aid his campaign. "I certainly believe that their endorsements will be helpful in convincing the American people that I can be commander in chief," he said.
And, repeating a constant campaign theme, he said: "Our nation cannot be strong abroad unless we are first strong at home. Unless we can revitalize America's economic engine, we will not be able to maintain our position as the leader of the world."
The endorsements came amid strong Administration attacks against Clinton's anti-Vietnam War activities and his trip to Moscow while a student at Oxford University in England--part of a 40-day tour of Europe during winter break, 1969.
It was the same strategy Clinton employed last month, when he combatted questions over his efforts to avoid the draft 23 years ago with the endorsement of retired Navy Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bush.
The 21 new endorsers included retired Army Lt. Gen. William E. Odom, former director of the NSA, which handles electronic intercepts and provides security for U.S. diplomatic and military communications; Gen. John Wickham, former Army chief of staff; retired Army Lt. Gen. Calvin A. H. Waller, the second in command to Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf during Desert Storm and an early supporter of Perot; retired Gen. Michael J. Dugan, the former Air Force chief of staff who was fired by Bush during the military buildup in the Persian Gulf after disclosing allied intentions to go after Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, and former astronaut and Navy Vice Adm. Richard H. Truly, who resigned as NASA administrator under pressure last February after a series of policy disputes with Vice President Dan Quayle.
White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater was unimpressed:
"Everybody got fired, now they're signing up with Clinton," he said. "Bill Crowe, Mike Dugan, and Truly all three basically had trouble with our Administration, and they go to Clinton."
After their public endorsement, several of the military figures also strongly criticized Bush.
Although crediting Bush for the invasion of Panama, which led to the capture of dictator Manuel A. Noriega, and for bringing about the continuing Middle East peace talks, Odom said in an interview: "What I've seen is a series of foreign policy disasters rescued by brilliant military performance."
Clinton made his comments about Perot on a local morning radio talk show. He conceded that Perot had probably helped his own cause during Sunday night's debate, as polls are suggesting. But Clinton said he does not intend to change his campaign tactics or strategy as a result.
He also took a sideswipe at the Texas billionaire, saying that Perot has enjoyed "a free ride" from public and media scrutiny since he withdrew from the race on July 16.
At the time, Perot was increasingly besieged by news accounts of disarray among his campaign staff and of his alleged proclivity to hire private investigators to look into those who disagreed with him.
"You know, when he got out (of the race), he was dropping very quickly because of a lot of negative press--not only because of what he said but because of some reports about investigations and things of that kind. By getting out, he was able to avoid all that. The press just left him alone. So I think he has the benefit of no scrutiny and a free ride," Clinton said.
Later, asked about his comments on Perot, Clinton sought to make light of them, saying: "I thought he benefited last night by having basically no expectations and an open mind (on the public's part). And I thought he had a good debate. That's all I said. . . . Don't make a big mountain out of a molehill."
In fact, some analysts said that Perot's presence in the debate helped Clinton, because it helped focus attention on the economy and the federal budget deficit.
"Perot does a lot of good for the system in laying out an indictment of the Bush record and lays out the need for change," said Paul E. Begala, a senior Clinton strategist. ". . . And that sets us up for the solutions."
As Clinton said of the debate: "Mr. Perot and I made a pretty good case for change. So I felt good about it."
Crowe was on hand Monday to serve as emcee during the endorsement of Clinton by the 21 former military leaders, not all of whom were present for the well-orchestrated event.
"Each of us here has come to the conclusion that a fundamental change is needed in the leadership of this country," Crowe said.
Crowe also criticized Bush, although not by name, for raising questions about Clinton's patriotism, calling that move a "divisive and peripheral" tactic that does not address "the basic concerns of the American people."