CHICAGO, MARCH 15 -- An otherwise placid television debate exploded tonight into the angriest exchange of the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination when former California governor Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. accused Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton of funneling thousands of dollars of business to the law firm of his wife, Hillary.

Responding angrily to Brown's charges of "corruption" and "conflict of interest," Clinton said, "Jerry, you're not worth being on the same platform" after "making a lying accusation about my wife."

The hour-long debate, carried by stations here and in Detroit and nationally on C-SPAN, came just 36 hours before the polls open in Michigan and Illinois. Surveys of voters have shown Clinton leading in both states, with Brown moving into a position to challenge former Massachusetts senator Paul E. Tsongas for second place in Michigan.

While the effect on Tuesday's vote is uncertain, Brown's accusations highlighted the relationship between Hillary Clinton's Little Rock law firm and the state government her husband has headed for 11 of the last 13 years.

Detroit anchorman Bill Bonds triggered the exchange with a question about Clinton's electability. After Tsongas brushed aside the question and attacked President Bush, Brown ripped into the Arkansas governor.

"Yeah, I think he's got a big electability problem," Brown said.

Citing a report in today's Washington Post about Hillary Clinton's work for the Rose law firm in Little Rock, Brown said Clinton "is funneling money to his wife's law firm . . . representing clients before the state of Arkansas. . . . It's not only corruption . . . it's the kind of conflict of interest that is incompatible with the kind of public servant that we expect as president."

Clinton, standing only an arm's length away, said, "I feel sorry for Jerry Brown. . . . You know, he reinvents himself every year or two. . . . His law firm took $178,000 of taxpayers' money to beat a contribution-limit initiative in 1990, so I don't think you can take much of what he says seriously."

"You're always trying to attack; you never answer the question," Brown told Clinton.

"Let me tell you something, Jerry. I don't care what you say about me . . . but you ought to be ashamed of yourself for jumping on my wife. You're not worth being on the same platform with my wife."

As the two men pointed fingers at each other, Brown said, "I'll tell you something, Mr. Clinton. Don't try to escape it. {Consumer activist} Ralph Nader called me this afternoon and read me the article from The Washington Post. I was shocked."

The article, headlined "Hillary Clinton's Law Firm Is Influential With State," cited work it, as well as two other large Little Rock law firms, had done for the state and its representation of clients before state authorities. The article noted no specific instance where Clinton is known to have directed state business to his wife's law firm.

Questions about the nexus of state power that resides in their household have arisen in several of Clinton's gubernatorial campaigns. In addition to her work at Rose, Hillary Clinton, who has been listed as one of the 100 most influential lawyers in the nation, sits on the boards of several Arkansas-based corporations and has served on several state task forces. She also was listed as the law firm's attorney on pleadings before the state security commissioner for a Rose client who was a business partner of the Clintons, the article said.

"Jerry comes here with his family wealth and his $1,500 suit and makes a lying accusation about my wife," Clinton said. "I never funneled any money to my wife's law firm -- never!"

"Well, they got $115,000 in bond business from the state of Arkansas," Brown said. Brown misquoted. The Post article cited payment of $115,000 to Rose for representing the state in a nuclear plant dispute with Mississippi and up to $175,000 for bond counsel work for the Arkansas Development Finance Agency since 1985. The article noted that the Rose firm is not the state's leading earner of bond counsel fees.

Clinton said the Rose firm had represented the state on various issues since the 1940s and should not have been asked to relinquish that account when Hillary Clinton joined it in 1977. He said she had declined any fees for state work and had voluntarily declined to take her partnership share in the firm's earnings from the state.

Clinton said he had not attacked Brown or Tsongas but had withstood personal attacks in this and earlier campaigns. "It is a crying shame that because they read the polls in the Chicago papers today, I get this kind of criticism," he said. "My wife is a fine person who has not done anything unethical."

As for his electability, Clinton said, "I have been attacked repeatedly over years and years and years, and none of it has ever stuck. . . . The only way we can win this election is with somebody who is tough enough to stand up to the kind of garbage the Republicans will throw at you, the kind of personal attacks that I have been subject to in the last few days."

Tsongas, who had been a spectator to the quarrel, broke in to ask, "Can I get a word in edgewise here?"

Holding up a piece of Clinton campaign literature he said is being distributed here, accusing him of favoring cuts in Social Security cost-of-living adjustments, Tsongas said that it was Clinton who had voted for such cuts in a National Governors Association resolution.

Tsongas said Clinton had backtracked from a similar distortion of his record on Israel, distributed in Florida, but that his campaign was repeating the tactic. Clinton conceded that his campaign's Florida flier "was inaccurate" but blamed it on "our local people" in Florida. Then Clinton added, "There has been only one stomp-down, false, absolutely dishonest television ad run in this campaign. It had no factual basis whatever. Paul Tsongas ran that against {Nebraska} Senator Bob Kerrey and me, accusing us of raising the deficit."

Earlier in the debate, Clinton had defended himself against charges that he had entered into a real estate deal with the operator of a failing savings and loan who was represented by Hillary Clinton before state regulators. As he has before, Clinton said he lost money in the deal and denied any conflict of interest.

Clinton left immediately after the debate, but Tsongas and Brown remained at the television station, amplifying their charges against the front-runner.

Tsongas called Clinton's belated apology for the Florida flier an attempt to "have the best of both worlds -- 'It's wrong, but I didn't do it.' . . . And this is the candidate who talks about personal responsibility, a rather interesting juxtaposition."

Brown said that any lawyer would recognize the impropriety of the Clintons' arrangements. "It's all about connections and clout and who you know, and this is not the right thing to do. . . . There's a scandal a week going here. Are we going to just let George Bush bring it up?"

Staff writers Dan Balz and Maralee Schwartz contributed to this report.