President Clinton strongly defended Vice President Gore yesterday, praising his colleague's record even though Gore repeatedly has sought to put some distance between himself and Clinton in the 2000 presidential campaign.

Clinton acknowledged that his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky might hurt Gore with some voters, but he minimized the likelihood. "The American people are inherently fair," he said, and able to judge candidates on their merits.

At a news conference at the Old Executive Office Building, Clinton said Gore "has a great record and has been the most accomplished vice president in history. . . . I gave him a kind of partnership and a level of responsibility never before remotely equaled in the history of this country, and I think that is worth something in an election because it shows what you can do."

Twice in recent campaign settings Gore has made a point of expressing concerns about Clinton, although he continues to praise the president as an outstanding leader. He told a Washington Post luncheon two weeks ago that he might ask the president not to campaign for him. And Wednesday night, in a televised New Hampshire forum with fellow Democratic contender Bill Bradley, Gore took a question about cynicism in American politics and responded as if the questioner had focused specifically on Clinton.

"I understand the disappointment and anger that you feel toward President Clinton, and I felt it myself," Gore said.

Yesterday, Clinton was asked if he felt he was "a drag on the vice president's campaign and a reminder of the Lewinsky-impeachment issue."

"No," the president replied with a steely stare. After a pause, he continued at some length. "You know, I think a lot of people who may not like me may hold it against him," he said, "but . . . I don't think mature people hold one person responsible for another person's conduct. . . . If there had been some example of official misconduct in office, which he had been a part of, that would be a different thing."

Voters are concerned more about the future than the past, Clinton said, but he added: "Insofar as they do blame him, I hope they give him some of the credit for the longest peacetime expansion in history," high employment and falling crime rates and welfare rolls. "In terms of what he said" in New Hampshire, "he hasn't said anything I haven't said."

Later in the news conference--held jointly with Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo--Clinton volunteered that Gore deserves much of the credit for the administration's "empowerment zones," meant to lure investments to low-income areas. Clinton praises Gore in virtually every major speech, and pollsters disagree on the extent to which the president's close association helps or hinders the vice president.

The late-afternoon news conference concluded a day of meetings between Clinton and Obasanjo, who was elected this year and hopes to end his nation's status as an international pariah state. Obasanjo pledged to work to end corruption and strengthen democracy in Africa's most populous nation.

In return, Clinton promised to try to quadruple U.S. aid to Nigeria, to about $100 million a year, and to work for rapid relief of Nigeria's $31 billion foreign debt. The United States gets about 10 percent of its oil from Nigeria.

After 15 years of corrupt and often brutal military dictatorship, Obasanjo, a retired general, took office in May. Under Gen. Sani Abacha, billions of dollars were looted from the oil-rich country, leaving a legacy of a declining standard of living and widespread unemployment.

"Nigeria is a pivot point on which the future of all Africa and much of the world will turn," Clinton said at the news conference. "I am very glad that that country is in the hands of this leader today."

Obasanjo promised to end the corruption and widespread drug trafficking and other criminal enterprises that led most nations to keep his predecessors at arm's length.

"Not many, if at all any, honest businessmen will want to rush into a corrupt atmosphere to do business," Obasanjo said. "So we have to remove corruption, and we are doing that."

On the topic of Russian bombing of the breakaway region of Chechnya, Clinton said the solution must be diplomatic, not military.

"It's been our experience that in every place where there are genuine ethnic and religious difficulties--and particularly when they're combined--that sooner or later, people have to stop fighting and start talking," he said.

Clinton, who leaves Sunday for Middle East peace talks in Oslo, Norway, predicted no major breakthrough there.

"I wouldn't want to raise expectations excessively about what the results of this meeting will be," he said. He said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat "have put themselves on an aggressive timetable, and they have a lot of tough issues to work through. . . . I think that it's best for me not to speculate about what the substantive results will be."

As for continued differences between his administration and Congress over federal budget issues for the fiscal year that is nearly a month old, Clinton said: "I do not believe there will be a government shutdown. . . . Somehow we have to come to terms with this."

He again criticized congressional Republicans' plan to cut spending across the board by 1 percent.

"The secretary of defense and others say it would have very bad impacts, [and] is still $17 billion short and would require more than 4 percent more to be cut across the board," the president said. "All this sort of smoke and mirrors that they have been doing--in claiming that we and the Democrats were trying to spend the Social Security surplus, when they were spending it all along--is not helpful."

Staff writer Douglas Farah contributed to this report.