WASHINGTON -- In what could go down as the most-watched political interview in history, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton is to appear on national television tonight to rebut allegations of marital infidelity, which he dismissed yesterday as the product of "sleaze tabloids and opposition money."
Mr. Clinton, the early favorite in the Democratic presidential race, has agreed to be interviewed for a special "60 Minutes" show that will follow the Super Bowl, typically the most heavily viewed program of the year, with an estimated U.S. audience of 100 million.
And in an attempt to cut off the damage before his "60 Minutes" appearance, top Clinton aides released last night a signed statement of contrition from the man who originally made the allegations of infidelity.
Larry Nichols, who had filed a lawsuit two years ago naming women who allegedly had affairs with Mr. Clinton, says in the statement that he had "never intended it to go this far."
Mr. Nichols also said he was dropping his suit. But when asked whether this meant his charges of marital infidelity were groundless, Mr. Nichols told an Associated Press reporter, "I'm going to leave that a mystery."
His statement dated Jan. 25 read: "I apologize to the women who I named in the suit. I brought them into the public's eye and I shouldn't have done that. The least significant part of my case were those concerning the rumors. I have allowed the media to use me and my case to attack Clinton's personal life."
Mr. Nichols said he had filed the suit only to demonstrate that he was "wrongfully fired" from his Arkansas state job.
"It is time to call the fight I have with Bill Clinton over." he said. In an accompanying statement, Mr. Clinton accepted the apology. "I hope that we'll all be able to put this behind us and get back to talking about the serious issues in this campaign."
Television networks have typically used the coveted post-Super Bowl slot for promotional purposes, such as launching a new entertainment series.
But this is the first time a politician, in the heat of a campaign, has attempted to take advantage of such a high-profile forum.
To some, it may recall Richard M. Nixon's "Checkers speech," answering charges about a private political fund during the 1952 presidential campaign, but that was a paid political broadcast, totally under the candidate's control.
With his candidacy potentially on the line, Mr. Clinton hopes the "60 Minutes" interview will enable him to put the issue of his alleged affair with an Arkansas woman behind him, aides say.
That, they add, outweighs their worries about giving wider exposure to the allegations, first printed in a supermarket tabloid, or the possibility that he might suffer further political damage because of something he might say in the interview.
"If it was anybody but Bill Clinton, I'd be concerned," said Bill Morton, the campaign's field director and a veteran of the 1988 Gary Hart campaign.
Mr. Clinton, who has previously acknowledged difficulties in his 20-year marriage, will be joined in the interview by his wife, Hillary, who has echoed his denunciations of the tabloid report as untrue.
After a speech in Boston yesterday afternoon, Mr. Clinton told reporters that he blamed the allegations on "sleaze tabloids and opposition money."
"The Republicans . . . got somebody to change their story," he said, without elaborating.
Asked if he thought his appearance on "60 Minutes" would be a decisive point for his campaign, Mr. Clinton said, "No, I don't think so. It's an opportunity to talk to millions of people directly. Another step along the way."
Mr. Clinton received a warm welcome and frequent applause from an audience of liberal Democrats attending a meeting of the Coalition for Democratic Values, an organization headed by Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum of Ohio.
Also yesterday, Mr. Clinton appeared at a Washington hotel before a candidate forum sponsored by the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson's Rainbow Coalition.
The governor had spent Friday in Little Rock, Ark., overseeing the execution of Rickey Ray Rector, 40, a black inmate convicted in the 1981 murder of a police officer.
Mr. Clinton, who lost a 1980 re-election race to a Republican who accused him of being soft on crime, is one of three Democratic presidential contenders supporting the death penalty this year. The others are Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey and former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas.
Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. oppose it, and Mr. Brown, who preceded Mr. Clinton at the Rainbow Coalition forum, began by asking the predominantly black audience to rise for a moment of silence in Rector's memory.
"In my eight years as governor, no one was executed," Mr. Brown said to applause.
But Mr. Clinton, who has now allowed three executions to go forward during his 11 years in office, did not flinch from the issue.
"I respect your right" to oppose the death penalty, he told the audience, couching his position in terms of his larger desire to give "safety and security back to the people of this country." Mr. Clinton was to return last night to New Hampshire, which holds its primary Feb. 18, for a rally with supporters in Manchester, the state's largest city.