WASHINGTON -- No one who has known Hillary Rodham Clinton for any length of time would believe that she is anti-Semitic. So the story that 26 years ago that she called someone "a [bleeping] Jew bastard" is hard to credit.
But the context in which the story surfaced means that it is a potentially serious political problem for the first lady in her campaign to be elected to the Senate from New York. And she has few weapons at her disposal in refuting the charge.
President Clinton quickly declared his wife "never uttered an ethnic or racist slur against anybody, ever." And the candidate herself described the story as "so outrageous and so unfair."
But how much credibility does Mr. Clinton retain? He is, after all, the same man who denied so unqualifiedly for so long that he ever had sex with "that woman" Monica Lewinsky. So the notion that the president of the United States is necessarily a convincing witness does not apply, as unfair as that may be in this case.
Hillary Clinton has not relied entirely on her husband. She has enlisted prominent Jewish politicians such as Sens. Charles Schumer of New York and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey to stand up for her. When she held a news conference to deny the accusation, Rep. Nita Loewy, who is Jewish, was at her side. She has released a 1997 letter from Paul Fray, the onetime congressional campaign manager who has now accused her, in which he begs her forgiveness for making false statements about her in the past.
She and her surrogates have done their best to trash the author of the book in which the story appears, Jerry Oppenheimer, and another witness to the 1974 incident. She has described the story as another example of "the politics of personal destruction that I think is so bad for our country."
Mr. Oppenheimer is described as a reporter for the National Enquirer, a prominent supermarket weekly, when in fact he is a free-lancer who has worked for mainstream news operations as well as the Enquirer.
In fact, there is no evidence that the Republicans or her opponent, Rep. Rick Lazio, had any role in the story about Hillary Rodham, then candidate Bill Clinton's girlfriend, raging at Paul Fray after Mr. Clinton lost a House race. Indeed, Mr. Lazio has taken care to avoid the controversy except to shed a few crocodile tears about how he doesn't know whom to believe.
And it cannot be forgotten that Hillary Clinton depicted the whole Monica Lewinsky episode as part of a "vast right-wing conspiracy" to destroy her husband while the White House was in the flat denial mode. In other words, the whole campaign of refutation, valid though it may be, has a familiar ring to it.
Candidate Clinton already has stumbled into some problems with the most militant Jewish groups. At one point, she carelessly put herself on record supporting a Palestinian state. At another, she embraced the wife of Yasser Arafat, who had just delivered a harsh attack on the Israelis. So some politically active conservative Jews in New York, always quick to see plots and not enamored of Ms. Clinton anyway, are now seizing on the Oppenheimer story as the smoking gun.
This is trouble.
Jewish voters are an important element of the electorate, perhaps 12 percent depending on overall turnout. And any Democratic candidate needs the support of two-thirds of them. But recent opinion polls show Hillary Clinton with only 50 to 55 percent. And those surveys were made before the New York tabloids went bananas with the tale from Oppenheimer's book, "State of a Union: Inside the Complex Marriage of Bill and Hillary Clinton."
One of the questions about Ms. Clinton's candidacy all along has been how she would handle the crises that seem inevitable in every New York campaign. These episodes often require a candidate to react several times a day in different news cycles. Stories that break in the morning papers have to be confronted quickly for the noon television news and then again for broadcasts at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m.
In this case, Ms. Clinton has been quick and forceful in her response. The question now is whether her denials -- and those of the president -- are persuasive.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.