"He didn't fail in his ministry because I did," Mr. Clinton said to a gathering of evangelical ministers in a session beamed by satellite to 11,000 Christian leaders around the world. "Surely, no fair-minded person would blame him for any mistakes that I made."
The president described his spirituality as a work in progress and said he was working on rebuilding his family life after his affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Mr. Clinton sat before an audience of about 4,500 with the Rev. Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church and a Clinton adviser since 1992, for his most revealing discussion yet about his spiritual struggles since his affair with Ms. Lewinsky nearly brought down his presidency.
Turning the conference of evangelicals into a public confessional, he called the affair "a terrible mistake."
"I feel much more at peace than I used to," Mr. Clinton told the clergymen. "I don't think anybody can say, 'Hey, the state of my spiritual life is great.' I don't think that's true. It's always a work in progress and you just have to hope you're getting better every day."
But he said the disgrace he suffered made him face the truth.
"It may be that if I didn't get knocked down ... I might not have had to really deal with it 100 percent," Mr. Clinton said, in apparent reference to his impeachment by the House.
"In a funny way, when you feel there is nothing left to hide, it sort of frees you up to do what you ought to be doing anyway. ... " I feel this overwhelming sense of gratitude. I also learned a lot about forgiveness."
His comments could have a political impact: Mr. Gore , a week away from his nomination as the Democratic standard-bearer to succeed Mr. Clinton, has suffered in the polls from being tied to a president whose job approval is high but whose ethics have drawn widespread scorn.
Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush slammed Mr. Clinton's conduct in his nomination acceptance speech last week.
"To lead this nation to a responsibility era, a president himself must be responsible," Mr. Bush said. "And so, when I put my hand on the Bible, I will swear to not only uphold the laws of our land, I will swear to uphold the honor and dignity of the office to which I have been elected, so help me God."
Noting that Mr. Gore has trailed Mr. Bush in most recent public opinion polls, Mr. Clinton said polls are a "picture of a horse race that's not over."
Those polls also show that while a majority of Americans approves of the job Mr. Clinton is doing as president, a majority also does not approve of his personal conduct.