MANCHESTER, N.H. -- With his presidential candidacy at stake, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton last night denied on national television that he had an affair with a woman who claims they did.
"That allegation is false," Mr. Clinton said on CBS' 60 Minutes.
Mr. Clinton took the risky step of appearing on television because news coverage of the woman's allegations had effectively paralyzed his campaign for the Democratic nomination.
He has been leading in opinion polls in New Hampshire, but a new poll indicates the issue is undermining the support for him in the state's Feb. 18 primary.
A supermarket tabloid, the Star, quotes Gennifer Flowers as saying she had a 12-year affair with the governor. The Star paid her an undisclosed amount of money for her story. Ms. Flowers, currently an Arkansas state worker, had previously denied having an affair with him.
The program was scheduled to air following the Super Bowl last night. CBS provided a partial transcript of the remarks of Mr. Clinton and his wife, Hillary, before the program aired.
Mr. Clinton described his relationship with Ms. Flowers, a former
singer and TV reporter, as "friendly but limited."
"I met her in the late '70s when I was attorney general," he said. "She was one of a number of young people who were working for the television stations around Little Rock.
"And people in politics knew people in the media, knew each other then just as they do now.
"She left our state and for years . . . I didn't really hear from her or know what she was doing. Then she came back sometime a few years ago and went to work again in the state, so that's how, who she is."
Mr. Clinton expressed confidence that the public would believe him and his wife. "I think most Americans who are watching this tonight, they'll know what we're saying, they'll get it, and they'll feel that we have been . . . candid," he said.
"And I think what the press has to decide is: Are we going to engage in a game of 'gotcha' "?
"You know, I can remember a time when a divorced person couldn't run for president, and that time, thank goodness, has passed. Nobody's prejudiced against anybody because they're divorced.
"Are we going to take the reverse position now, that if people have problems in their marriage and there are things in their past which they don't want to discuss which are painful to them, that they can't run?"
Earlier yesterday, in an interview with the Associated Press, Clinton and his wife said they were confident voters would weigh his campaign on its merits.
"People in this country will see that Hillary and I love each other, we're committed to our child and to our family and that we have something to offer the country, and if they think it is better than what anyone else is offering, I think they'll vote for me," the governor said, holding his wife's hand.
"Given a choice between having to be single and president or going home to Hillary and Chelsea [their 11-year-old daughter], it would be an easy choice for me," Mr. Clinton said.
"I wouldn't be half the person I am if it hadn't been for all we've been through, the good as well as the bad, and the great endeavors we've undertaken together and the child we've raised together," he said.
"The American people get to decide that. If they decide that someone else would be a better president then I will go back to my wonderful life."
Mr. Clinton told the American public, "We're willing to take the blows if you're willing to give us a listen."
The impact of the 60 Minutes program will emerge as Mr. Clinton campaigns this week, initially in the South, and faces voters. Yesterday afternoon he told supporters at a campaign stop in Portsmouth he wouldn't talk again about the subject. "Watch 60 Minutes," he said, his voice hoarse. "I have said all I'm going to say and I'm not going to say anymore."
He was responding to a question about the allegations from someone in the audience at Yoken's Restaurant. The crowd jeered the questioner, with several people yelling, "Nobody cares."
But a number of people present said they did care whether he was telling the truth.
If he had affairs in the past, they'd overlook that, several people said. If he was still having affairs or was lying about his past, they said he'd lose their trust.
"Well, it doesn't have any importance for me," said Lorraine Laroche of Portsmouth, referring to the allegations.
"The past is past. And if his wife is happy with the situation with him, it's past. So it won't affect my vote. And I sincerely hope he wins it." Her husband, Arthur, agreed. "If it's current affairs, that's one thing," he said. "Then you're dealing with integrity, which affects every other characteristic."
Clinton aides who watched the program being taped earlier in the day in Boston said they were happy with his and his wife's performance.
"I think the Clintons said what they wanted to say to the American people and that's a good thing," said deputy campaign manager George Stephanopoulos.
Now, Mr. Clinton will have to contend not only with reaction to the CBS interview but continuing media coverage of allegations against him.
The Star story, publicized in advance last week, hits newsstands today, and will be followed next week with a second and -- says Star editor Dick Kaplan -- last installment of Ms. Flowers' story.
However, Newsweek magazine and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette are raising questions about Ms. Flowers' credibility, citing discrepancies in her Star story. Newsweek reportedly asserts that a hotel where Ms. Flowers claims to have had a tryst with Mr. Clinton hadn't been built at the time she said the affair was occurring. The Arkansas newspaper cited sources disputing Ms. Flowers' claims concerning her past.
In addition, Larry Nichols, the fired Arkansas state worker whose allegations of infidelity by Mr. Clinton formed the basis of the Star's original story, has said he is dropping his lawsuit against the governor. Mr. Nichols issued an apology Saturday to Mr. Clinton and to the women he named in his two-year-old suit.