Vice President Gore moved to quell a rising political controversy last night by stating that he would not insist that senior military commanders personally agree with him about allowing gays to serve openly in the armed forces, but would require only that his appointees faithfully carry out his policy.

Pulling back from remarks he made three days ago at a Democratic debate in New Hampshire--when he answered "yes" to a question about whether he would apply a "litmus test" for the Joint Chiefs of Staff on gays serving openly in the military--Gore told an impromptu news conference in West Des Moines, Iowa, that his meaning had been misunderstood.

"I did not mean to imply that there should ever be any kind of inquiry into the personal political opinions of officers in the U.S. military, nor would I ever tolerate such inquiries," Gore said.

Gore's statement followed a day of top-level discussions within his campaign about how to respond to what many outside political strategists and some on his own team feared was a damaging answer the vice president gave Wednesday night.

Gore said then that he is determined to scrap the Clinton administration's "don't ask, don't tell" policy requiring homosexuals to keep their sexual orientation private, adding, "I think that would require those who wanted to serve on the position of the Joint Chiefs to be in agreement with [my] policy."

That answer--combined with Gore's assent to moderator Peter Jennings's question of whether this amounted to a litmus test--appalled many current and retired military officers, surprised even some gay activists and invited a shower of Republican criticism. Several Democratic sources close to Gore's camp said he had no choice but to backtrack or risk having the issue become a serious distraction.

But Democratic sources said Gore was determined that he not be seen as abandoning a position under pressure. He and the campaign insisted the candidate's statement last night was not a change of position, merely a clarification of it.

Gore said that by stating he would apply a litmus test, he meant "that I would insist on having members of the Joint Chiefs who would implement that policy and who would not do anything but implement that policy."

The result is that Gore's position is essentially identical to one former senator Bill Bradley articulated at the same University of New Hampshire debate.

The Bradley-Gore battle for the support of gay voters has been particularly aggressive as both camps have realized the influence the community exerts on Democratic Party politics. In California, where voters also will consider a gay marriage ballot initiative on March 7, activists predict homosexuals will make up 10 percent to 15 percent of the Democratic primary vote.

But in last night's Republican debate in South Carolina, Arizona Sen. John McCain criticized both Gore and Bradley for calling for their appointees to carry out a policy of allowing gays to serve openly. "That is a total destruction of the entire concept of the military and we should as Americans reject such a thing because of the harmful effect it will have on the military of the United States of America," McCain said.

Gore's statement of policy could defuse the issue--in the short term and the long term. By moving late Friday, Gore hoped to avoid having the issue affect today's debate with Bradley in Iowa.

Michael Collins, a Republican National Committee spokesman, said yesterday--before Gore restated his view--that what was galling about the vice president's position was not its support of homosexuals. "It's not about gays in the military, it's about his concept of command," Collins said, adding that Gore seemed to be saying to the military, "If you don't share my political agenda, you're not suitable for command."

The RNC yesterday was producing a TV ad, to be aired in Iowa, New Hampshire and some markets with large military populations, asserting that retired Gens. Colin L. Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf "couldn't pass Al Gore's litmus test."

There is evidence the gays-in-the-military issue is not as volatile as it was in 1993, when President Clinton was forced to abandon his pledge to end the military's prohibition against homosexual personnel in favor of the "don't ask, don't tell" compromise. At a debate Thursday night, the two leading GOP contenders said they wanted to keep the compromise policy intact, rather than go back to the more restrictive pre-Clinton policy.

A focus group in New Hampshire organized by The Washington Post found Democratic voters irritated that Jennings raised the gays-in-uniform issue at all during the debate, regarding it as irrelevant. Michael Harrison, who monitors radio talk shows for Talkers magazine, said the issue these days generates little of the contention and ill feeling on the airwaves that it did seven years ago.

Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster not affiliated with either presidential campaign, said rising tolerance on gay rights issues by all but the most committed conservatives means that Bradley and Gore are not taking huge general-election risks by campaigning so aggressively for gays in the military. "If you're going to vote on the basis of this issue, we probably already know how you're going to vote," he said.

But Garin said Gore's "litmus test" remark risked conveying disrespect for the military and could have become a general-election liability.

Peter Feaver, an associate professor at Duke University and specialist in civil-military relations, said Gore's litmus test remark hit a military nerve that goes beyond the issue of whether gays should be allowed to serve openly.

"When Gore says he'd make the gays issue a litmus test, he's touching all the wrong buttons," Feaver said. "Many in the military already are sensitive to not being heard. It was an excruciatingly dumb thing to say."

There remain a host of practical questions casting doubt on whether Gore's and Bradley's statements on the subject are achievable.

"The Gore-Bradley discussion missed the point completely, because before a president can try to convince the Joint Chiefs, he has to convince Congress," said Joseph J. Collins, a retired Army colonel. "What stops gays from serving openly in the military is the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which prohibits specific homosexual acts, and unless the code is changed by Congress you cannot settle this issue."

Gore and Bradley also seem to be assuming that commanders might harbor "personal" views about gays in the military, but that this would not impede their implementing a new policy. In fact, as Clinton found, commanders are allowed to share their opinions, even if they differ from the administration, on matters affecting their services. Clinton's plans were swamped when congressional hearings revealed overwhelming uniformed opposition to allowing gays to serve openly.

Staff writers Dan Balz with Gore and Ceci Connolly, Bradley Graham and Roberto Suro in Washington contributed to this report.