CLAREMONT, N.H. — Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton on Thursday strongly denied a woman's charges published in a tabloid newspaper that she conducted a 12-year affair with him, but conceded "I don't know if I can" persuade voters to believe the denial.
"It didn't happen," Clinton told reporters in New Hampshire, where the charges plunged his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination into turmoil.
But, he added, "The other charges, I've always been able to actually, affirmatively disprove. I don't know how you can disprove this."
The charges come from Gennifer Flowers, a sometime nightclub singer in Little Rock, Ark., and Dallas who claims she had frequent sexual relations with Clinton, who is married, starting in 1977 and continuing until 1989. The tabloid Star paid Flowers an undisclosed amount for cooperating in the article.
Flowers denied the same charges one year ago and hired a lawyer to threaten suit against a Little Rock radio station for having "wrongfully and untruthfully alleged an affair" between her and Clinton.
The Star story includes quotations from tape recordings that Flowers made of telephone calls between herself and Clinton. In one tape, Clinton told her that "as long as everyone hangs tough" there will be no problems. "If they ever hit you with it, just say 'no' and go on," the account quotes Clinton as saying.
In an interview, Star editor Richard Kaplan insisted that that quotation shows Clinton was trying to cover up the affair.
Clinton did not dispute the accuracy of the quotation Thursday, but insisted the Star has taken a small excerpt of his conversation to twist its meaning. Flowers, he said, called him because she was distraught over repeated calls from reporters over the last several months. He was merely trying to reassure her that she had nothing to worry about and give her advice about how to respond to questions, he said.
"I told her over and over 'tell the truth,' " he said, adding, in reference to the Star, "I'm sure they didn't put that in there."
None of the quotations from the tapes from Clinton or Flowers directly mention a sexual relationship, and the Star has placed restrictions on the tape recordings that make ascertaining the truth about the conversations difficult. Under those restrictions, outside reporters may listen only to the recordings of specific quotations used in the story, not to the full tapes. "It's a contractual matter," editor Kaplan said.
"This stinks to high heaven" said Clinton's gubernatorial press secretary Mike Gauldin.
The incident clearly disrupted Clinton's campaign for the day, causing him to delay his schedule in New Hampshire while he engaged in lengthy calls with aides and key supporters. Late Thursday evening, Clinton and aides were debating an appearance on television by the governor and his wife to discuss the latest allegation.
Asked about the allegations while at a campaign appearance in Florida, Clinton's wife, Hillary, also denied them. "It's not true," she said. "We just have to trust the American voter to make up his or her mind."
One key aide argued for a television appearance by the couple. "You can't just go hunker down and say 'no comment,' because in our society 'no comment' is interpreted to mean guilt," the unidentifed aide said.
Others, however, insisted that to comment further on the allegations would merely give them more credence by spreading them to a wider audience.
Meanwhile, top campaign officials were preparing to gather in Washington for a previously planned strategy session with major supporters and were insisting Clinton would weather the storm.
"There are facts on our side," said Clinton strategist Paul Begala.
Flowers' story includes several questionable points in addition to her previous denials. She alleges, for example, that beginning in 1980, while she was living in Tulsa, Okla., she and Clinton frequently would meet and have sexual relations at the Excelsior Hotel in Little Rock. The hotel was not built until two years later.
In addition, in the lawyer's January, 1991, letter threatening suit against radio station KBIS in Little Rock, Flowers' lawyer claimed that because of the rumors about her, Flowers had suffered "an inability to find gainful employment."
Clinton aides suggested that those problems might make Flowers, who currently works as a receptionist at the state unemployment office appeals board, more susceptible to offers from publications like the Star.
"She's obviously taken money to change her story," Clinton said. Although Kaplan would not say how much Flowers had been paid for her story about Clinton, tabloids frequently pay tens of thousands of dollars--and sometimes far more--for flashy stories about well-known individuals.
Flowers former manager, Jim Porter, said in an interview that her singing career had not done as well as she had wished. "I just couldn't book her enough to please her," Porter said.
He added, "I personally know of no relationship between her and the governor."