TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, again facing public skepticism about his honesty, told a college audience Thursday his explanation that he had smoked marijuana but not inhaled it was made as a "nervous afterthought."
In a lengthy and impassioned response to questions posed at Florida A&M University, the Democratic presidential candidate said: "If you never inhaled a cigarette, it's hard to try anything else. . . . I just said it as a nervous afterthought (in answering a query about marijuana use) because it happened to be true."
Clinton's sole remaining rival for the Democratic nomination, former California Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., also campaigned before a college audience Thursday, attracting an enthusiastic crowd of about 4,000--and a standing ovation--at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind.
At this and his other campaign appearances, Brown's message was the same: Clinton, although now the heavy favorite to claim the nomination, has not yet been anointed. Democrats who want to change the status quo should not allow him to win the party's presidential nomination without serving notice that he must take account of their views.
"You've got to let the people in Washington, Congress, the media know that this campaign is not over," Brown said.
The two men next square off in Tuesday's Pennsylvania primary, which Clinton is expected to win easily. Indiana holds its primary on May 5.
The issue of Clinton's youthful drug use first arose when he acknowledged during a debate in New York earlier this month that he experimented with marijuana "a time or two" while a college student in England in the late 1960s. He made the statement after being asked whether he had ever broken a state, federal or foreign drug law.
Previously, Clinton had answered questions about drug use by saying he had never broken a state or U.S. law.
Clinton and his aides had seemed buoyed in recent days by the absence of questions about that subject, his draft record or allegations of marital infidelity, other character-related questions that have periodically plagued his campaign. But during his Florida A&M appearance before a generally receptive audience of several hundred, two questioners--including one Clinton later said he was told is a member of the college Republican club--sought to draw him out on the character issue.
One of the questioners insisted, "I want to believe you." But he added, "I have a real hard time believing you could take a joint . . . take a hit and not inhale it. My question, sir, is can you show me how you did that?"
In apparent exasperation, Clinton said he found it "amazing" that "anybody would be so obsessed with (the drug use issue) and should actually have decided that I gave a calculated answer to try to diminish the impact of the fact that I'd tried" marijuana.
Clinton also stressed that he was not trying to avoid blame by saying he did not inhale.
"What you interpret me as saying was, 'It really wasn't so bad because I didn't inhale it.' " But he added, in saying he didn't inhale, "I wasn't trying to exonerate myself."
Clinton's answers won applause from his audience. He later said he was "exhilarated" by the exchange and that "I could tell I had the crowd with me."
Clinton was in Florida, where he won the primary in March, as part of a fund-raising swing aimed at replenishing his campaign treasury. Jeff Eller, a campaign spokesman, said fund raising is now "pretty much driving (Clinton's) schedule."