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Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's rivals are questioning his chances of winning the November presidential election as the Democratic contest turns increasingly testy in advance of a pivotal primary stretch.

Even as he responded angrily to fresh attacks from rivals, Clinton stirred a new controversy by giving a blunt, earthy response when informed - mistakenly, as it turned out - that Jesse Jackson had endorsed one of his rivals.Clinton thought he was speaking privately when he reacted, saying it was a "dirty, double-crossing, backstabbing" thing to do.

Jackson Thursday said he was not angry at Clinton but said the Arkansas governor "panicked and went out of control and began to hurl false accusations about backstabbing" when given the bad information while conducting a series of satellite interviews Wednesday. Clinton's remarks were picked up by an open microphone.

It's not just the Democratic contest that is heating up.

Campaigning in Georgia on Wednesday, GOP challenger Patrick J. Buchanan reacted with scorn when asked to respond to Vice President Dan Quayle's assertion that Buchanan is not qualified to be president.

"How would he know?" Buchanan told a news conference. Buchanan then said he did not want to get into a war of words with Quayle because "I don't want to be charged with child abuse."

The heated rhetoric should come as no surprise. The two dozen contests in the next two weeks will go a long way in shaping the outcome of the nominating contests.

Many of the primaries are in the South, putting the candidates for the first time before significant black populations. Clinton has the most institutional support in the black community and was adding to it Thursday by picking up the endorsement of Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson.

But his rivals are challenging him, most notably Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, both of whom campaigned for black votes in Clinton's southern stronghold of Georgia.

It was in Georgia where Kerrey asserted that Clinton should not be the Democratic nominee "because he will not win in November." Kerrey said a controversy over Clinton's Vietnam draft status would prevent Clinton from winning.

Just two weeks ago in New Hampshire, Kerrey said the controversy should not be an issue in the campaign. But with little money for television advertising, yet new vigor because of his Tuesday win in South Dakota, Kerrey sought to gain attention as he tried to make inroads in Georgia.

"I'm going to describe with no shame, with no need to defend my own experience, my record and how that relates to getting the job done," Kerrey said. "Duty means that when the call comes, you answer," said Kerrey, who lost part of his leg in Vietnam and was awarded the Medal of Honor.