Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater has apologized to former Massachusetts governor Michael S. Dukakis for the "naked cruelty" of a remark he made about the Democratic presidential nominee in the 1988 campaign.

Atwater's apology is included in a first-person account in the February issue of Life magazine that details his fight against an inoperable brain tumor.

As manager of George Bush's 1988 presidential campaign, Atwater succeeded in making an incident involving prisoner Willie Horton an issue against Dukakis.

Horton, a convicted murderer, raped a woman in Maryland while on a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison. The Bush campaign used the incident to portray Dukakis as a liberal who was soft on crime.

"In part because of our successful manipulation of his campaign themes, George Bush won handily," Atwater wrote. He conceded that throughout his political career "a reputation as a fierce and ugly campaigner has dogged me. While I didn't invent 'negative politics,' I am one of its most ardent practitioners."

But since his illness, Atwater, 39, has apologized for many of the tactics he once employed.

"In 1988," he wrote, "fighting Dukakis, I said that I 'would strip the bark off the little bastard' and 'make Willie Horton his running mate.'

"I am sorry for both statements: the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound racist, which I am not."

When the RNC meets in Washington on Jan. 25, it is expected to ratify President Bush's choice of Agriculture Secretary Clayton Yeutter to become the new party chairman.

Atwater is to be given the title of general chairman.

The Life article is accompanied by photographs that show Atwater today, his face swollen and framed by dark, curly hair. They are a stark contrast to earlier pictures of him, lean and grinning, jogging or mugging with Bush.

February "marks my 40th birthday -- that deadline I set for achieving my life's goals," he wrote. "I lie here in my bedroom, my face swollen from steroids, my body useless and in pain. I will probably never play the guitar or run again; I can only hope to walk.

"The doctors still won't answer that nagging question of mine: How long do I have? Three weeks. Three months. Three years.

"I try to live as if I have at least three years, but some nights I can't go to sleep, so fearful am I that I will never wake up again."