In campaign ads, Al Gore displays a photo of his Vietnam-era self in fatigues with an M-16 slung over his shoulder. On the trail, he asks campaign crowds: “How many other Vietnam veterans are here? Welcome home. I’m a Vietnam veteran.”
Among veterans, Mr. Gore is running as one of them right down to the American Legion hat he likes to wear at a jaunty angle when campaigning at American Legion halls although he was a noncombat information officer.
As an Army journalist, Mr. Gore said he “carried a reporter’s notepad and pencil in one pocket and a fully loaded M-16,” which he said he never aimed or fired.
“You carry an M-16, a fully loaded M-16, for a reason. You hope to never have to use it,” he told the Associated Press in an interview.
The campaign sees his Vietnam service as “an important piece of his biography and background,” Gore spokesman Chris Lehane said.
Republican George W. Bush, on the other hand, rarely talks about his stateside service with the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam years.
He is far from nostalgic in public about his days as a pilot. Asked recently if he still flies, Mr. Bush brusquely answered “no” and walked past.
Mr. Bush, who in a bitter GOP primary had to face Sen. John McCain’s heroic story of being a POW in Vietnam, instead talks about restoring morale to U.S. troops by bringing honor and dignity back to the Oval Office.
He also promises to rebuild the military and stresses, through a proposed $3 billion-per-year spending increase on veterans’ health care, repayment of a “debt of honor” to American veterans who he says have been neglected by the Clinton administration.
The separate appeals to veterans are offshoots of each candidate’s drive to be seen as having what it takes to be commander in chief. For now, national polls give Mr. Bush the lead among veterans, almost 2-to-1 in a recent CNN/USA Today/ Gallup survey.
The contest played out again this weekend in Memorial Day appearances: Mr. Gore gave the commencement address Saturday at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., and planned to visit with veterans in western Pennsylvania today, while Mr. Bush was to spend the holiday with soldiers at Texas’ Fort Hood.
Mr. Gore recently told a veterans’ gathering in Little Rock, Ark., that he has made it his project in the White House to give President Clinton recommendations on how to resolve the problem of armed services personnel who make so little that they are eligible for food stamps. The Gore camp has not offered details.
By way of connecting with veterans, Mr. Gore notes that, as a member of Congress from Tennessee, he co-founded a caucus of Vietnam-era veterans.
For Mr. Gore, images from his Army days also are part of a broader attempt to introduce his life story to voters who have gotten to know him only as Mr. Clinton’s No. 2.
Mr. Gore’s strategists blame his stagnant poll numbers on what they say is the public’s unfamiliarity with the candidate, and they are expected to focus their first wave of general-election TV ads on his biography. Those biographical spots, as during the primaries and in his 1988 presidential campaign, are likely to feature a snapshot of him in Army fatigues.
During the primaries, Mr. Bush said war stories are less likely to influence veterans’ votes than leadership experience.
“I think voters are going to say I’d be a better commander in chief because I’ve had chief executive experience. I know how to set goals. I know how to make decisions. I know how to rally people,” Mr. Bush said, at the time comparing himself to Mr. McCain.
His spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said: “The governor has military service, the governor is a veteran… . But he does not view this election as a personal referendum on his resume, and he doesn’t think the voters are going to base their choice on Al Gore’s resume. They’re going to base it on who they think will make a stronger leader.”
Mr. Gore’s biography right out of Harvard, he enlisted in the Army, then volunteered for Vietnam duty includes five months in-country as a military information specialist, a noncombatant role that he says included brushes with enemy fire.
Mr. Gore and his aides are sensitive about not over-trumpeting his military days.
Friends have said that one reason that Mr. Gore, who opposed the war, enlisted was his fear that dodging the draft might hurt his senator-father’s re-election chances. As it turned out, the late Al Gore Sr. lost anyway.
Mr. Gore shies away from talking about Mr. Bush’s National Guard service.
“I don’t pass judgment on the decisions that anybody else made during that time of the Vietnam War, because everybody faced a different situation, and the country was in the midst of a big mistake,” he said. “So much time has passed we ought to give everybody a break on whatever decisions they made considering whether to serve or not to serve.”
How much does military background matter? Not that much, suggested Charles Wright of Corning, Ark., a past state commander for the Veterans of Foreign Wars who recently turned out to hear Mr. Gore in Little Rock.
“I don’t support Gore. I support the man in office who supports veterans’ issues,” said Mr. Wright, who served in the Navy in Vietnam. “I vote for the person who is going to do the job properly.”