WASHINGTON -- Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton came under fire from a Democratic rival yesterday amid continuing speculation that another candidate may enter the presidential race.
Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, one of five major Democratic contenders, said he had "serious doubts" about Mr. Clinton's character because of remarks the governor made about New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.
While polls show supporters sticking with Mr. Clinton, some Democratic politicians fear that his candidacy may have been permanently crippled by controversies stemming from his alleged affair with Gennifer Flowers and her tapes of telephone conversations between herself and the Arkansas governor.
These worries about Mr. Clinton's electability are helping fuel speculation that some other, prominent figure may yet join the race.
Six Democrats are being mentioned by party figures as possible late entrants: Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, Senate Democratic Leader George J. Mitchell, Sens. Al Gore of Tennessee and John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV of West Virginia and New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.
All were either presidential candidates last time or gave serious consideration to running in 1992. Mr. Bentsen, the party's 1988 vice-presidential nominee, never firmly ruled out a '92 race, and Mr. Gephardt, in an appearance yesterday morning on NBC, refused to close the door completely on a presidential try.
Mr. Clinton's opponents, sensing an opening in the wake of the allegations of womanizing, have begun stepping up their criticism of him.
New York newspapers bore banner front-page headlines about Mr. Cuomo's angry response to taped comments from Mr. Clinton. "Cuomo Says Clinton: Talks Like Bigot," screamed the New York Post.
On the tape, played Monday by Ms. Flowers at a news conference, Mr. Clinton calls Mr. Cuomo a "mean son of a bitch" and responds to her suggestion that Mr. Cuomo might have "Mafioso" connections by saying, "Well, he acts like one."
A statement released Tuesday by Mr. Clinton said: "If the remarks on the tape left anyone with the impression that I was disrespectful to either Governor Cuomo or Italian-Americans, then I deeply regret it. At the time that conversation was held, there had been some political give-and-take between myself and the governor, and I meant simply to imply that Governor Cuomo is a tough and worthy opponent."
Mr. Cuomo, at a news conference this week, called Mr. Clinton's remark "part of an ugly syndrome that strikes Italian-Americans, Jewish people, blacks, women, all the different ethnic groups."
At a campaign stop in New York yesterday, Mr. Kerrey questioned the sincerity of Mr. Clinton's apology.
"It gives me serious doubts about the nature of the candidate himself," Mr. Kerrey told reporters. "I defended him in public, but his apology is extremely weak."
Mr. Clinton, returning to New Hampshire for the first time since Ms. Flowers went public with her charges Monday, received a friendly reception at three campaign stops in the state, which holds its primary two weeks from next Tuesday. But at some stops, reporters exceeded the number of voters on hand.
"By any measure that I know, we're doing better today than a week ago," insisted James Carville, a Clinton campaign consultant.
But his strategists added a second straight day of New Hampshire campaigning to the governor's schedule today y, in recognition of the heightened importance of the Feb. 18 primary to his chances.
Democratic politicians say if Mr. Clinton falters in New Hampshire,his support from party leaders is likely to erode quickly, and the demands would grow for some other candidate to get into the race.