PRINCETON, N.J. -- Presidential candidate Bill Clinton, bolstered by strong endorsements from fellow Democratic governors, responded punch for punch yesterday to a new Republican ad that belittles his record as governor of Arkansas.
The yet-to-be-aired ad reportedly declares that Mr. Clinton is "a failed governor from a small state."
Mr. Clinton, flanked by 17 Democratic colleagues who assembled here for today's start of the 84th annual meeting of the National Governors' Association, replied: "I think I'm running against a failed president of a big country."
Charles Black, senior political adviser to President Bush's campaign, said the "failed governor" ad will not be in the "first wave" of ads to be aired by the Republicans. But he also said, "We like to think that assertion is correct."
As for the president's being a failure, Mr. Black said the campaign obviously disagrees. He blamed Mr. Bush's problems on the "hostile, partisan Congress" he has had to deal with the past four years.
Following a private conference call with Mr. Bush during a separate meeting of the Republican Governors' Association, GOP governors described the president as upbeat, enthusiastic and eager for the campaign to begin. But they offered no hint of any new presidential proposals on the economy or other matters, confining their comments to attacks on Mr. Clinton's record as governor.
The Democrats had anticipated this.
"Their whole campaign must be an exercise in evasion," said Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York. "Their failure was so monumental they're not able to respond. They can't deal with it."
Mr. Cuomo and other Democrats at this traditionally non-partisan conference on governmental issues asserted that the Republicans have to revert to name-calling or other diversions because they cannot win on the issues.
"I'm working very hard to 'fail' in New York the way Bill Clinton has 'failed' in Arkansas," Mr. Cuomo said. "The last time I looked, he was elected six times."
Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado described the governors' association as a group that grew to respect Mr. Clinton after working closely with him over the last decade on difficult issues, such as the creation of a set of national education goals and
efforts to reform the nation's welfare programs. Much was made of a Newsweek ranking by the governors themselves that concluded that Mr. Clinton was the most effective.
"We know him as well as any policy-makers in the nation, and we're enthusiastic," said Gov. David Walters of Oklahoma.
"We know Bill," added Hawaii's John Waihee III, chairman of the Democratic governors' group, "and we want to make sure our states are behind him."
But South Carolina Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr., a Republican, said he considers Mr. Clinton a friend but would never vote for him for president. He said that the Newsweek poll was skewed because when it was taken there were 30 Democratic governors and 20 Republicans.
Missing from yesterday's Democratic governors' meeting was Maryland's William Donald Schaefer, who was not due to arrive here until this evening. Mr. Schaefer's support of Mr. Clinton has been lukewarm at best, though he has repeatedly expressed his admiration for Mr. Bush.
Mr. Clinton flew in from Little Rock, Ark., specifically to attend the Democratic governors' meeting, held at a lush vineyard several miles north of Princeton. He was to return to Arkansas last night, missing the annual summer conference for the first time since he was elected in 1979.
After getting in his partisan shots, Mr. Clinton cited the bipartisan tradition of the National Governors' Association to explain why he was leaving: "I thought if I were to go [to the meetings] . . . it might be a divisive element. I didn't want to do that."