Mr. Clinton had welcomed the confrontation as an opportunity to attack Mr. Brown's plan for a 13 percent flat tax on businesses and individuals.
The Arkansas governor waited until the debate was 45 minutes old before calling the plan "the biggest rip-off in American politics."
Then, with only five minutes left, Mr. Clinton reiterated his complaint that the flat tax would favor the rich and destroy the Social Security system.
But Mr. Clinton, who has been fighting off hecklers and controversies for a week, appeared tired and dispirited throughout the debate, which was televised locally on WABC-TV and nationally on C-Span.
By contrast, Mr. Brown was customarily insouciant, repeatedly assailing "the corrupt status quo" and ending with a grinning repetition of his 800 toll-free telephone number.
The debate was held at Lehman College in the Bronx just seven days before the primary here that Mr. Clinton desperately needs to win to get his campaign back on the track toward the Democratic presidential nomination.
But the discussion of education, crime and drugs, housing, jobs and health care evoked no new positions from either candidate. And there was nothing that could have been called a winning political thrust by either candidate.
The debate was the first of five or six the candidates are expected to join in the final week of the campaign since Mr. Clinton reversed himself on his willingness to take part in such confrontations.
The Clinton reversal came as an opinion poll conducted by the Buffalo News showed the Arkansas Democrat leading Mr. Brown only 40 percent to 34 percent and suggested the private tracking by the Clinton campaign shows a similarly tight race.
"There's an old rule in politics," Mr. Brown said, "that you never debate a challenger until you're a loser."
Advisers to the front-running Mr. Clinton said the debates are necessary to give him a chance to go, as one put it, "directly to the voters and around the tabloids." And the candidate continued to complain he has been "trashed in the tabloids" because of their emphasis on such controversies as how he tried avoid admitting that he had experimented with marijuana while a Rhodes Scholar in England more than 20 years ago.
The Clinton campaign concern with the press coverage reached the point at which they began running a television commercial boasting that "he stood up to the tabloids" -- a puzzling tactic in a city in which three tabloids have several million readers every day.
The complaints about the newspapers added to the picture of Mr. Clinton as a candidate still very much on the defensive with the campaign down to its final week. Some Clinton advisers were even saying publicly that the Arkansas governor's campaign for the nomination could survive a defeat here, an opinion not universally shared in the political community.
Before the debate, Mr. Clinton spoke to a Jewish organization in Manhattan, assailing the Bush administration for what he called its "abandonment" of Israel and for using "strident rhetoric" that has "broken down the taboo against anti-Semitism" in U.S. society.
Mr. Clinton and Mr. Brown also spent almost two hours at Gracie Mansion where, flanking Mayor David N. Dinkins, they discussed urban issues raised by a panel of mayors led by Raymond S. Flynn of Boston, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.