WASHINGTON -- President Bush, who says he has sworn off the negative political tactics he successfully used four years ago, repudiated yesterday remarks by a campaign aide who attacked Bill Clinton and "your fellow Democrat sniveling hypocrites" and who made personally derogatory references to the governor of Arkansas.
Mr. Bush disavowed the statement but not its author, campaign political director Mary Matalin, in whom the president expressed "full confidence."
He rejected demands from the Clinton campaign that he fire the longtime political aide.
But his refutation of her statement suggested that a concerted effort by the Clinton campaign to tar Mr. Bush as a chronic practitioner of negative politics was hitting pay dirt. And it raised questions about whether the president might be kept from going all out with the sort of campaign tactics that helped him defeat Democrat Michael S. Dukakis four years ago.
"This is not how I want to run the campaign," the president said through an aide, who said Mr. Bush "is determined to keep this campaign out of the sleaze business."
Ms. Matalin, in a distinctly unrepentant manner, expressed "regret if the tone of my statement" Sunday violated a Bush edict against personal attacks.
But the episode only fueled the image of a Bush campaign in disarray and played into the Clinton campaign's strategy of encouraging a voter backlash against attacks on its candidate.
In Little Rock, Ark., Mr. Clinton brushed off the incident as "nickel-and-dime stuff" and "standard operating procedure" from a president who wants "desperately, desperately, desperately" to hold on to the White House.
Asked whether he considered the matter closed, Mr. Clinton replied, "We'll see, won't we?"
Ms. Matalin, in denying earlier that the President Bush-Dan Quayle campaign was making personal attacks on Mr. Clinton, had told a reporter she had never referred to Mr. Clinton as, in her words, "a philandering, pot-smoking draft dodger." It is an old political ploy to air such characterizations by denying having said them.
The whole affair spotlighted not only the level of frustration that has gripped the Bush-Quayle campaign but also the determination of the Clinton campaign to deter further personal attacks by reminding voters of Mr. Bush's 1988 negative campaign performance.
Clinton strategists are banking on the notion that the electorate is fed up with negative campaigning of the sort in which Mr. Bush used the case of convicted murderer and rapist Willie Horton to paint Mr. Dukakis as soft on criminals. Horton assaulted a Maryland couple while on a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison.
While it is too early to conclude that the Bush-Quayle campaign will be deterred in any major way from negative campaign tactics, it is clear that the president's campaign for the short term has been intimidated and is likely to take a more gingerly approach to criticizing Mr. Clinton, at least for a while.
In 1988 as today, Mr. Bush found himself far behind the Democratic nominee after the Democratic convention and felt obliged to cut his rival down to size with negative stories. The Bush campaign called it "defining" the opponent.
The tactic worked famously, with Mr. Dukakis' 17-percentage-point lead in post-convention polls vanishing as he let the attacks largely go unanswered.
With Mr. Clinton ahead by that much or more in this year's polls, the Republicans obviously are yearning to find similar information against him, either new or recycled from the primary season.
This time around, however, the Democrats are responding swiftly and aggressively to all Bush-Quayle attacks -- and portraying the attackers as smear artists continuing their old 1988 tactics.
Mr. Clinton alerted voters early to the prospect of another negative Bush campaign, and his aides pounced on the first of Ms. Matalin's remarks, seeking to hold the president responsible and casting him as duplicitous on the matter of clean campaigning.
The latest round started when Ms. Matalin, insisting that the re-election campaign was not repeating personal charges against Mr. Clinton but merely questioning his honesty and integrity in dealing with them, told a New York Times reporter: "The larger issue is that he's evasive and he's slick. We've never said to the press that he's a philandering, pot-smoking draft dodger."
When the reporter asked, "The way you just did?" Ms. Matalin replied: "The way I just did. But that's the first time I've done that. There's nothing nefarious or subliminal going on."
Ronald H. Brown, the Democratic national chairman, immediately jumped on the exchange and, in another favored political ploy, sought to lay the remarks directly at the president's feet. "Anyone who knows Mary Matalin," he said, "knows she is a true political professional. She would never have used such a vicious smear unless she was instructed to do so."
Mr. Brown cited an April 10 news conference at which the president said he had "made specific instructions in writing to our people to stay out of the sleaze business."
Mr. Brown asked: "Is this insubordination or obedience? Is his political director getting a public reprimand and a private pat on the back?"
After Ms. Matalin's subsequent weekend news release attacking Mr. Clinton, the Clinton campaign joined in, demanding that she be fired.
Far from backing off, she said, "I stand by my criticism of the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party for their unprecedented hypocrisy and for daily disparaging, in the most egregious and personal terms, the president of the United States."
To prove it, she issued another statement charging the Arkansas governor with "pandering" to organized labor by opposing the so-called fast-track trade agreement with Mexico, which the AFL-CIO says will result in U.S. jobs being lost to cheap Mexican labor.