CONCORD, N.H. -- Feisty and unapologetic, Bill Clinton is exhorting voters to decide what's more important: issues affecting their lives or those concerning his personal life.
"The character issue in this election is who is really willing to put it on the line and change your life for the better," he told an audience of senior citizens yesterday.
With the Democratic presidential primary Tuesday, the Arkansas governor is seeking to stop his sharp drop in the polls by shifting the focus of the election from his draft record and marital life to issues such as the economy, health care and education.
Once the front-runner in New Hampshire, Mr. Clinton has seen his support fall 12 percentage points in the last two weeks, according to a new poll of New Hampshire voters.
The poll, conducted by Political-Media Research and reported in yesterday's Concord Monitor, showed that former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas had the support of 32 percent of likely voters in the Feb. 18 primary, up from 24 percent in a poll conducted by the same group two weeks ago.
Mr. Clinton had 25 percent, down from 37 percent two weeks ago.
Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin had 10 percent, Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey had 8 percent, and former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. had 5 percent. Three percent of likely Democratic voters polled said they would write in New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.
But 17 percent remain undecided, according to the poll, which has a margin of error of 5.5 percentage points.
Last night, Mr. Clinton's campaign took the extraordinary step of buying a half-hour of television time in which Mr. Clinton answered thequestions of citizens sitting around him in a studio.
Campaign aides said the questioners were free to ask what they wanted, and though most stuck to issues like the economy, one woman asked Mr. Clinton whether his "electability" had diminished.
"If you say I'm electable on Tuesday," he answered, "by definition I'm electable."
During that forum he backed away from his charge that Republicans dug up the 22-year-old letter in which he asserted opposition to the Vietnam-era draft and cited his reasons for avoiding it.
That letter, which ABC News says it obtained from a Democrat who is a former officer in the University of Arkansas ROTC, ignited a new round of questions Wednesday.
Mr. Clinton has said he eventually decided to make himself eligible for the draft in 1969 because he felt a moral obligation to do so after some of his high school classmates had been killed in Vietnam.
At campaign stops during the day, Mr. Clinton was received warmly by the New Hampshire Legislature and by senior citizens -- none of whom asked about his draft record or the allegations of marital infidelity that became a campaign concern last month.
Without ever referring specifically to personal issues, Mr. Clinton repeatedly asked voters to consider what was most important.
"Only you can decide what this election is about," he told a meeting of the American Association of Retired Persons' Concord chapter. "This belongs to you, not anybody else. I want you to seize your destiny."
He won applause -- and laughter -- for a scathing denunciation of President Bush's trip to Japan and the president's health care plan, which Mr. Clinton termed a "snow job."
"The Japanese prime minister said he felt sympathy for the U.S. LTC You ever think you'd live to hear that?" Mr. Clinton asked. ". . . If I had been there I'd probably have thrown up, too."
Ed Kenney, a retired federal worker from Bow, N.H., said he wasn't troubled by Mr. Clinton's draft record.
"I don't think he's done anything illegal, immoral," Mr. Kenney said. "I think you have to look at the context: What were people doing and thinking about the war? I think I probably would have done the same thing."
Although several other prospective voters said they weren't disturbed, some were sure Mr. Clinton's draft record would cost him.
"I think the newspaper publicity has had an effect with a lot of people," said Allen G. Mayville, 75.
The Democratic leader in the New Hampshire House, Rep. Mary Chambers, said, "It's bound to have an impact."
Some who said it didn't affect them recalled their own hostility to the war.
"I have a son who was in the draft and was fortunate not go to Vietnam," said Rep. Marion L. Copenhaver, a Democrat and supporter of Mr. Kerrey. "I have sympathy with someone who didn't have to go to Vietnam."
With five days to go to the primary, Mr. Clinton insists there's time to recover lost support.
"To be fair, the people of New Hampshire didn't know me and so when all this stuff was dumped on me, I think they just said, 'Hey, we'd better take another look.' But we've got five days left in this campaign, and I learned it's a lifetime," he said in an interview with New Hampshire's major TV station, WMUR.
"People here are fair," he said. "I've taken the issues back to the people. We're on the offensive now and I think they want to take this campaign back. I think the voters of this state want the election to be about them and their future, and I think if they ask themselves who would be the best president, I've still got a good chance to do well."
Some of Mr. Clinton's opponents, particularly Mr. Harkin, won't let the draft issue drop. "It looks as though it's coming down to a two-person race, Mr. Tsongas and myself," said Mr. Harkin, a Navy pilot during the Vietnam War.
Mr. Kerrey, who lost part of his leg and received a Medal of Honor for his Vietnam service, said, "I do think I have an obligation to say I'm proud of my military service."