President Clinton early this morning accepted "with sadness" the withdrawal of Zoe E. Baird, his embattled nominee for attorney general.

The announcement, an embarrassing defeat on Clinton's second day in office, followed a second, marathon day of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for Baird. The Connecticut corporate lawyer had endured an agonizing sesssion in which she repeatedly apologized for knowingly violating the law when she hired a Peruvian couple without proper immigration papers and failed to pay proper taxes for them.

Clinton in a statement called her "a gifted attorney and a woman of decency and integrity." He said he took "full responsibility" for a review process that had failed to fully evaluate the seriousness of Baird's hiring of illegal immigrants to work in her house.

Baird, in a letter to Clinton, said that "the continuing controversy surrounding my nomination seriously impedes my ability" to achieve the goal of reinvigorating the Justice Department. "My love and respect for what the Department of Justice should be has led me to reach a decision tonight that I should respectfully request that you withdraw my nomination."

Baird, stating that she had been "forthright about the circumstances surrounding my child care situation from the beginning," said she was "surprised at the extent of the public reaction" but faces "the reality that this situation affects my ability to achieve the goals we both have for the Department of Justice."

Baird was visibly exhausted and shaken as the hearings concluded at 9:30 last night, but her testimony did little to stem a torrent of public outrage over the nomination, a reaction that had surprised Clinton administration officials and senators alike.

Senior officials gathered at the White House became increasingly convinced as the day wore on that the nomination had to be withdrawn.

Telephone calls, overwhelmingly negative, flooded the Capitol switchboard. A procession of moderate Democratic senators, five in all, called publicly on Baird to withdraw and spare them the agony of having to cast a vote on the unpopular nomination. Their statements were seconded in private by other angry Democrats, several of whom had expressed their concerns to White House officials directly.

Public opinion polls started to appear showing overwhelming opposition to her confirmation. A Washington Post-ABC News poll yesterday showed 58 percent of those interviewed were opposed to her nomination; 32 percent in favor and the rest undecided. A CNN poll broadcast last night produced similar results.

In addition to the Democratic defections, at least five Republicans -- including the sole Republican woman in the Senate, Nancy Landon Kassebaum (Kan.) and two members of the committee, Sens. Alan K. Simpson (Wyo.) and Larry Pressler (S.D.) -- announced their opposition.

White House officials said there had been little if any planning for a backup choice for attorney general.

The collapse of the Baird nomination, in the assessment of observers in Congress and outside, reflected damaging miscalculations by Clinton administration officials before and after the then-president-elect announced his choice of Baird in a last-minute flurry of appointments rushed to meet Clinton's self-imposed Christmas deadline.

Clinton had originally considered Baird for White House counsel -- a position for which Senate confirmation is not required and in which the illegal hiring saga might have been little more than a blip, had it become public at all.

But Clinton, committed to selecting the first female attorney general, turned to Baird when his first choice, U.S. Appeals Court Judge Patricia M. Wald, turned him down and he was unenthusiastic about other choices, such as Washington lawyer Brooksley E. Born.

Baird, in the words of one transition adviser, was "the last woman standing" -- bringing stellar recommendations from sages such as then transition director and now Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher and Washington lawyer Lloyd Cutler. She also impressed Bill and Hillary Clinton in her interviews with them.

Baird had disclosed her situation with the Peruvian couple to transition officials, including Christopher, who was among those recommending the 40-year-old lawyer. Christopher related the matter to Clinton, informed sources said. But the sources said it was not clear that the entire matter was laid out for the transition.

"The problem here is that there was a realization that there was an issue and probably not adequate realization of the full nature of it," said one senior administration official. "Zoe and {her husband, Yale Law School Prof.} Paul {Gewirtz}, raised the issue but it isn't clear whether or not the full impact was reported."

After the nomination, when Baird's actions were revealed by the New York Times last week, transition officials minimized the significance of the conduct. They said it was not clear that Baird had even violated the law, that her conduct was a technical violation at worst that was the result of an anomaly in the immigration laws. They blamed her actions on faulty legal advice.

"The magnitude of what was being faced was not understood, at least not entirely," one senior official said.

The public seized on the fact that Clinton, who won office pledging to end business as usual in Washington and return government to people who play by the rules, had nominated as his attorney general a $507,000-a-year corporate lawyer who had broken the law in order to secure child care.

And, as calls started to pour into Senate offices as the hearings commenced Tuesday, some of the solid support of which the Clinton officials believed they had been assured began to evaporate. Prominent women like former representative Barbara Jordan called on Baird to withdraw. Yesterday, the dam broke.

For Clinton, who had proudly pointed to his Cabinet selection process as one in which he had more personal involvement than any previous president, Baird's withdrawal cast a dark shadow over a day in which he celebrated his arrival in office with an open house at the White House and won a sweeping Senate vote of approval for nine Cabinet officers and five other high-ranking officials.

The incident called to mind the defeat suffered by then-President George Bush four years ago when the Senate rejected his nomination of John G. Tower to serve as defense secretary after charges about his drinking habits, relations with women and connections with defense contractors.

But the Tower nomination went to the Senate floor, creating a months-long battle that did not end until his defeat in early March. For Clinton, the quick turnaround on the Baird nomination, while humiliating, at least allows him to conserve political capital for those things he has identified as his legislative priorities, such as health care and campaign finance overhaul.

There were also echoes of the defeat suffered by the last Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, when Theodore C. Sorensen was forced to withdraw as the nominee for director of central intelligence even before Carter took office.

The Sorensen fight, which concerned criticism of his past handling of classified information and his registration for noncombatant status with his draft board, called into question Carter's ability to wield influence on Capitol Hill -- a foreshadowing of his presidency.

Clinton officials said last night that analogies to Tower and Sorensen were faulty because Clinton has not endured a bruising, lengthy fight or been rebuffed on ideological grounds.

Baird's withdrawal inserted a note of tragedy in the otherwise brilliant career of a lawyer who had experienced a meteoric rise from Justice Department lawyer and assistant White House counsel during the Carter administration to partner in the Washington office of a major national law firm to one of the first women to serve as general counsel of a major company, the Aetna Life & Casualty Co. It was when she was preparing to take the Aetna post that Baird, who had previously worked in the general counsel's office at General Electric Co., hired the Peruvian couple to care for her young son.

Senate backing for the confirmation of Baird began to crumble yesterday afternoon as five moderate Democrats, echoed by Republicans on and off the Senate Judiciary Committee, called on her to withdraw.

"If there is any department where you need a head where there are no questions, it's Justice," said Sen. David L. Boren (Okla.). Added Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (La.), whose opposition played a crucial role in the 1987 rejection of Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork: "I think it would be in the interest of the country if she would voluntarily withdraw her name . . . I am afraid she would be under too much of a cloud if she were to be confirmed as attorney general."

Democratic Sens. Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), John B. Breaux (La.) and J. James Exon (Neb.) also called on Baird to withdraw.

Those public statements were seconded in private by other Democrats, several of whom had expressed their concerns directly to White House officials, who meanwhile offered her minimal public support or lobbying assistance.

One Senate source said there was a noticeable absence of support for Baird's nomination when the Democrats gathered for their luncheon caucus yesterday, with many believing the nomination was doomed.

By the time the hearing ended last night, a White House aide was acknowledging that the tide had turned against Baird and that it would be "an uphill battle" to get her confirmed. And Senate Judiciary Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) commented wryly: "I'm going to go upstairs and wait for the phone to ring."

Kassebaum, who four years ago was the only Republican to oppose the failed nomination of Tower, sent the committee a letter signed by her and five Republican women in the House. She said she had been pleased that a woman had been selected for the post and opposed Baird only with "deep regret."

Baird had said she would not withdraw and vowed, if confirmed, to be an aggressive crime fighter who would "evenhandedly" enforce the same immigration laws she violated. The hearings were to resume today with testimony from Baird's husband, who handled the child care arrangements, and Thomas Belote, the Connecticut lawyer who advised them on immigration law.

In her testimony yesterday, Baird repeatedly argued that her recent payment of $2,900 civil fines for hiring two illegal immigrants was a "demonstration that the law does apply to everyone."

Asked during the hearing by Sen. Herbert Kohl (D-Wis.) if she had given any thought to withdrawing, Baird calmly replied that "it would not be appropriate," adding: "I think that my overall record gives me the potential to be a great attorney general."

A Baird adviser said, "I don't think anybody focused on that {the hiring of the illegal immigrants} as being that big a deal because the feeling was everybody does it." The adviser said Baird is "feeling like she was a little misled about the importance of this, the political side of it. . . The people in the transition never led her to think that she was going to be weathering a big storm."

In his first daily briefing yesterday, White House communications director George Stephanopoulos offered muted support. "The president continues to think she'd make a good attorney general," he said. "Right now, Zoe Baird is his nominee."

Accustomed to giving wide deference to Cabinet nominees and reluctant to break with Clinton during his first week in office, a number of Democrats said they were startled by the intensity of public reaction to Baird.

With scant personal knowledge of the corporate lawyer and, among some Democrats, unhappiness about her positions on issues like tort law overhaul, they were feeling little personal commitment to the nomination. In addition, they reported minimal if any pressure from women's groups in support of the nomination.

Baird acknowledged that she and her husband knowingly violated the law when they hired the couple to care for their young son and serve as a part-time driver in the summer of 1990.

While Baird said she and Gewirtz filed papers with the Labor Department and the Immigraton and Naturalization Service to obtain legal status for the illegal immigrants, they did not do so until July 1991 -- a one-year delay. The couple remained in their employ, paid $250 a week each, plus room and board, until last year.

"My calls are just overwhelmingly against her," said Sen. Dennis DeConcini, (D-Ariz.), adding that the latest count from his office was 305 to four. Some of those calls, he said, came from "business people" whom his office had sought to help after they, like Baird, had been fined by the INS for hiring illegal immigrants.

"If she has any supporters in Vermont, they have preserved their anonymity," said committee member Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), saying that the callers seemed angry about the idea that Baird's nomination to be attorney general represented a "double standard." "These have been calls that for the most part have been spontaneous," Leahy said.

Polling director Richard Morin and staff writer David S. Broder contributed to this report.

ZOE BAIRD: THE PUBLIC'S VIEW

Q: Do you think Zoe Baird should be confirmed by the Senate to serve as attorney general?

Yes ........................... 32%

No ............................ 58

Don't know .................... 10

Q: Do you feel that way mainly because she employed the illegal immigrants, or for some other reason? (Asked only of those who said Baird should not be confirmed.)

Because of immigrants ......... 73%

Some other reason ............. 24

Don't know ..................... 3

Q: Whatever the outcome, do you think it was a mistake for Clinton to have nominated Baird for attorney general?

A mistake ..................... 35%

Not a mistake ................. 55

Don't know .................... 10

Q: If Baird does not become attorney general, how important is it to you that Clinton's next nominee be another woman?

Very important ................ 13%

Somewhat important ............ 19

Not too important ............. 21

Not at all important .......... 46

Don't know ..................... 1

NOTE: Figures based on a Washington Post-ABC News telephone survey of 515 randomly selected adults conducted yesterday. Margin of sampling error for the overall results obtained from a random sample of this size is plus or minus 5 percentage points. However, the practical difficulties of doing a survey in a single night represent another potential source of error in this poll. Interviewing was conducted by Chilton Research of Radnor, Pa.