Texas Gov. George W. Bush today said he would have voted for a gun control bill defeated by the House last week and defended his decision to sign legislation barring cities in his state from suing gunmakers for the costs of violence on their streets.

Bush said the 24-hour check on weapons sales at gun shows contained in the House bill "would have made it harder for convicted criminals to get a gun." Most Democrats argued that the House proposal would have actually weakened current law by shortening the waiting period for some gun show sales. They joined with some Republicans to defeat the bill.

Opening his campaign for the early and often vital South Carolina primary, the Republican presidential hopeful also pledged to increase federal funding for abstinence education programs aimed at reducing the "epidemics" of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

In a news conference after visiting an abstinence training program here, Bush accused the White House and congressional Democrats of "playing politics" with the gun control issue and hit back at President Clinton, who criticized him Sunday for staying on the sidelines during the bitter congressional debate over the gun measure.

Speaking sarcastically of "rumors" that Democrats preferred to keep the gun issue alive for 2000, Bush said it was an example of the partisan atmosphere he finds objectionable in the capital. He said he had not lobbied Republicans on the vote.

As for the measure barring city suits against gunmakers -- a target of criticism from Vice President Gore -- Bush said he was unwilling to "subcontract out public policy to the trial lawyers," as he said the Clinton administration too often has done.

Besides, he said, criminals who misuse guns -- not the companies that make them -- should pay the penalty. He said the gun issue was different from cigarette manufacturing, because the tobacco companies had "deceived" the public about the risks of smoking. However, Bush added, he is unhappy with the large payments the lawyers in the tobacco suits had received.

Bush opened his South Carolina campaign in Columbia, where he was greeted by Sen. Strom Thurmond, the icon of the state Republican Party. The South Carolina primary provided early and critical victories for his father, then-President Bush, in 1992, and eventual nominee Robert J. Dole in 1996. The state Republican executive committee voted earlier this month to advance the primary date to Feb. 19, 2000, in a bid to retain the kingmaker role.

In endorsing abstinence education, Bush was repeating a theme he has voiced from the beginning of his tenure as governor. As part of the 1996 welfare reform bill, congressional Republicans authorized $50 million a year in abstinence education programs, and Texas has supplemented its share of the federal grants with $6 million of state funds to support programs in 32 communities.

Today, Bush pledged to increase federal funding to at least $135 million a year. He said Washington is spending to encourage teenagers to use contraceptives for "safe sex." He said he favored abstinence-only education programs, because teaching abstinence and "safe sex" at the same time "sends a contradictory message."

Bush also said he would ensure a role for faith-based institutions in the sex education programs and make them part of a larger initiative for "responsible choices" by young people. The abstinence programs have been praised by some proponents but remain largely unproven in their effectiveness, according to Doug Kirby, a California researcher regarded as an authority on sex-education programs. The Alan Guttmacher Institute, which reports annually on pregnancy, said earlier this month that 80 percent of the decade's decline in teenage pregnancy can be attributed to improved contraceptive use and 20 percent to increased abstinence.

But in a background paper distributed at the news conference, Bush cited the success of the "Best Friends" mentoring and abstinence program in Washington, which reportedly had a 1 percent pregnancy rate among participants, compared with a reported 26 percent rate among all high-school-age girls in the District. Other programs in Tennessee, Michigan and California also reported dramatic results.

Last April, Bush addressed a "True Love Waits" rally of young people, sponsored by the Baptist General Convention of Texas, on the grounds of the state Capitol, challenging them to avoid sex until they are in what he called "a biblical marriage relationship."

Asked by Texas reporters that day if he had abstained himself, Bush said, "I think the thing that baby boomers have to say is not, `Did we make mistakes?' but `Have we learned from our mistakes and are we willing to share the wisdom?' "

From South Carolina, Bush travels today to Richmond and Washington on a trip devoted mainly to fund-raising events.

Researcher Ben White contributed to this report.

CAPTION: Texas Gov. George W. Bush arrives with his wife, Laura, to address supporters in Columbia, S.C., capital of pivotal GOP primary state.