A grim, bitterly divided Senate yesterday killed the nomination of Defense Secretary-designate John G. Tower by a largely party-line vote of 53 to 47, handing President Bush a defeat of historic proportions less than two months after he took office. The vote climaxed one of the most wrenching and rancorous Senate debates of modern times as only one Republican and three Democrats broke party lines, and Republicans warned that wounds created by the nearly two-month ordeal over Tower's nomination would take a long time to heal. Fifty-two Democrats were joined by Republican Nancy Landon Kassebaum (Kan.) in voting to reject the nomination. Democrats Howell Heflin (Ala.), Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) and Lloyd Bentsen (Tex.) joined 44 Republicans in voting for confirmation. "I depart from this place at peace with myself, knowing that I have given a full measure of devotion to my country," said Tower in a statement delivered at the Pentagon moments after the vote. In New York, Bush praised Tower for the "dignity and lack of rancor" with which he greeted the verdict of his former Senate colleagues after a "cruel ordeal." He added that "we owe it to the American people to come together and move forward." Senior administration officials said Bush yesterday morning was given a list of potential new nominees, including several passed over when Tower was initially selected for the Pentagon job, and that the president asked for an even wider selection to choose from. Yesterday's Senate vote marked the first time in history that a new president was denied a choice for his initial Cabinet and only the ninth time that any Cabinet-level nominee has been rejected by the Senate. It was the first rejection of a Cabinet nominee since the Senate turned down President Dwight D. Eisenhower's nomination of Lewis L. Strauss as secretary of commerce in 1959. It was also a humiliating personal defeat for the 63-year-old Tower, a former Republican senator from Texas who served as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee from 1981 to 1984. A man of widely acknowledged experience and expertise, Tower was buried under an avalanche of charges about his drinking habits, relations with women and relations with defense contractors. The Senate vote was conducted in almost funereal calm as a former colleague was rejected. Senators sat at their desks rather than milling around, standing as their names were called and remaining in the seats for a respectful period afterward rather than dashing for the door. Vice President Quayle, who only a few days ago said he looked forward to casting his first tie-breaking vote to confirm Tower, instead sat ceremonially in the presiding officer's chair, announcing to the hushed Senate and the packed galleries that "the nomination of John Tower to be secretary of defense is not confirmed." It was a senior Republican, not Democrats, who assessed the damage to Bush in the most sweeping terms. With the vote already a foregone conclusion, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) said Tower's rejection would be "an embarrassment to the president around the world . . . the leader of the free world can't even get a Cabinet member confirmed." Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) attempted to put a better face on the defeat. "The president won because he stood by his man," said Dole. As for Tower, Dole said, "he knows this is political so he can accept it." Dole and other Republicans continued to rage at what Sen. James A. McClure (R-Idaho) called a "raw exercise of political power" by the Democrats, who control the chamber by a 55-to-45 margin. "We have witnessed the confirmation process gone reckless . . . a partisan hotbed of character assassination," Dole said. Democrats "won the political battle but . . . lost the moral and ethical war," said Sen. John S. McCain III (R-Ariz.). Democrats, by contrast, attempted to play down the political significance of the vote and denied they wanted to wound the president, focusing instead on what they described as the Senate's constitutional obligation to reject nominees who are, in the words of Alexander Hamilton, "unfit characters." There will be "no celebrations, no backslapping . . . no winners but the Constitution and our system of government," said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who led the charge against Tower and emerged from the fight with his power enhanced but with an image of partisanship that he had always sought to avoid. The Senate's verdict, he said, was a "highly personal, very painful decision." In a similarly low-key fashion, Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) said Tower received a "full and fair hearing" and was scrutinized by the Democrats with no more partisanship than Republicans showed in voting to reject the nominees of Democratic presidents in the past. Mitchell said Tower's excessive drinking -- which Tower acknowledges occurred in the 1970s and Democrats said continued into the 1980s -- amounted to "an insurmountable obstacle" to confirmation. As if to demonstrate its support for other Bush nominees, the Senate moved quickly from the rejection of Tower to the approval of William J. Bennett as the administration's drug czar. Bennett's nomination was confirmed by a vote of 97 to 2, with Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Paul Simon (D-Ill.) voting no. All other Bush nominees to come before the Senate so far have been approved without any Democratic opposition. During deliberations leading up to the Armed Services Committee's party-line vote to reject the nomination last month and the week-long debate on the Senate floor, the drinking habits of the man who would be second in the military and nuclear chain of command were most often cited by those who opposed him. Many also voiced concern about the $1 million that Tower earned as a defense consultant after leaving his post-Senate job as a U.S. arms control negotiator, which Nunn and others said gave at least the appearance of profiting from public service. Tower's "indiscreet" behavior with women, as Nunn put it, was mentioned by some but not all. However, it appeared to be the cumulative weight of all the allegations, proven and unproven, coupled with Tower's abrasive manner and senators' concern over his temperament and judgment, that did him in. Tower's nomination was being rejected because he "falls short of the high standards" for the office, Nunn said at the conclusion of yesterday's debate. Tower got off to a shaky start when doubts within the Bush administration caused a delay of several weeks in his formal nomination. And, from the start, Nunn made it clear that the Senate would not provide a clubby rubber-stamp for an old colleague. He and the Armed Services Committee's ranking Republican, John W. Warner (Va.), had already compiled a demanding list of standards that a defense nominee would have to meet. But Tower appeared headed for easy confirmation until conservative activist Paul Weyrich accused him of excessive drinking and indiscreet relations with women at an Armed Services Committee hearing and the committee began receiving a torrent of other charges about drinking, women and possible conflicts of interest, many of which were turned over to the FBI for investigation. By early last month, Nunn was expressing strong misgivings, and efforts by Tower to reassure Nunn and others, including a public sobriety pledge, did little to allay concerns that deepened as FBI files became available to committee members and other senators. In retrospect, Nunn's influence among his Democratic colleagues was so strong that his decision to vote against Tower, announced shortly before the committee voted against him Feb. 23, probably sealed Tower's fate. What little chance he had vanished when it became clear Wednesday that only three of the five Democrats whom Tower needed were going his way, despite personal lobbying by Bush to win over at least a dozen Democrats. With the outcome no longer in doubt, Dole yesterday morning abandoned his last-ditch proposal of the previous evening to give Tower a six-month "trial" confirmation, which would be subject to renewal in October. Democrats were clearly against the scheme, and Dole said he was withdrawing it at Tower's request. Dole then agreed to let the Senate vote on the nomination. "One of the things I've learned around here is to count," Dole explained.