A new account of how Democratic presidential front-runner Howard Dean avoided service in Vietnam through a medical deferment -- then went skiing in Colorado for 10 months -- renewed arguments Saturday that a military veteran would be able to mount a stronger challenge against President Bush.
The former Vermont governor was excused from the draft in 1970 when X-rays showed he had a bad back, although Dean said in an interview that he "probably" could have served, the New York Times reported Saturday.
Two other candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination -- Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark -- fought in Vietnam and were wounded and decorated for their service.
The two rivals declined to criticize Dean for his draft deferment, which was approved by the Selective Service.
But a Clark spokesman argued Saturday that the former general's years of military service and term as supreme allied commander of NATO would make him a much stronger opponent for Bush.
"That's all relevant to our ability to take on and beat George Bush," said Matt Bennett, Clark's communications director.
A Kerry supporter, former Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia, said Dean "weaseled out of going to Vietnam on a medical deferment for a bad back and wound up on the ski slopes of Aspen." Cleland said that record stood in stark contrast to that of Kerry, who he said served heroically in Vietnam.
Cleland suffered devastating wounds -- losing both legs and one arm -- while serving in Vietnam. He later headed the Veterans Administration under President Carter.
Whether candidates had avoided or served in Vietnam has become a standard presidential campaign issue since Bill Clinton ran against President George H.W. Bush in 1992.
Clinton defeated Bush, a decorated World War II veteran. Clinton had lobbied successfully to get his Army induction canceled during the Vietnam War.
The current President Bush also did not have to serve in Vietnam; he took an assignment in the Texas Air National Guard.
Political analysts predicted that Dean's actions 33 years ago, as a 21-year-old Yale University student, would disturb some voters, but probably wouldn't bother those who have rallied around the front-runner largely because of his opposition to the war in Iraq.
"The other Democrats can't call him a coward or a draft dodger, because what he did was legal," said longtime national political analyst Bill Schneider. "And, particularly among Democrats, there is no disgrace in having avoided service in that particular war."
Dean has moved to the front of the Democratic pack and has stayed there despite several controversies.
He was assailed by Democratic rivals for once advocating a reduction in Medicare spending. And he took heat for saying he wanted to win over the kind of voters who displayed Confederate flags on their pickup trucks. Those and other comments seemingly did nothing to slow his advance to the top of the heap in fund-raising and polls.
Schneider predicted that, rather than attack Dean's actions directly, Kerry and Clark would try to persuade Democrats that their military service and background in foreign affairs make them better suited to defeat Bush.
National security issues have loomed large since the 2001 terrorist attacks and the start of the war in Iraq. Clinton's lack of military experience did not seem as pertinent during the 1990s, when the U.S. seemed to face little threat from abroad, many analysts have said.
Dean's actions could make him a more difficult candidate to sell in the South, said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.
The avoidance of Vietnam could be most damaging if it reinforces an image that Dean is a privileged Northerner.
"For Southerners, military experience has been something that has been expected of people, and the essence of it for people here will be the genuineness of his deferment," MacManus said. "That ski thing resonates with the average person. They can't go skiing. They don't have enough money to go skiing. That just looks like 'rich boy gets out of it' to them."
Dean's campaign sought to downplay the issue at campaign stops in Michigan and Iowa on Saturday.
Dean explained that he suffered from an "unfused vertebrae" in his back that was diagnosed in high school. The injury, he said, "didn't keep me from leading a normal life, but it did prevent me from serving in the Army. Like many Americans at that time, I was opposed to the war. However, while I did oppose the war, I fulfilled my obligation and I told the truth."
Dean's 1-Y classification meant he could only be drafted in the case of an extreme national emergency.
Dean declined to elaborate on his statement during a flight from Detroit to Des Moines on Saturday afternoon.
In Iowa, Dean's supporters did not seem troubled by their candidate's failure to serve in Vietnam.
"I went, but I wouldn't have if I could have helped it," Vietnam veteran Phillip Wilson said in Des Moines. "It shows you how smart he was to get around it. I'm not sitting here saying, 'I went and he dodged.' "
Members of a national service workers union who attended a Dean rally at a Des Moines high school gymnasium called the candidate's handling of his Vietnam draft status old news.
"Yesterday's over, we have to focus on the here and now," said Jon Neiderbach, a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which recently endorsed Dean. "Howard Dean has demonstrated a very strong character over the past 25 years. He's been a model for taking political risks and standing up for what he believes in."
In an interview, AFSCME President Gerald W. McEntee referred to questions about Dean's Vietnam choice as a "sideshow."
"We supported Bill Clinton -- we've been all through this Vietnam thing, the marijuana, those kinds of issues. Dean has spoken honestly about the issue," McEntee said.
Times staff writer Matea Gold contributed to this report. Gold and Glionna reported from Des Moines; Rainey reported from Los Angeles.