President Clinton said Thursday that he plans a "deliberate but fairly quick" search for a new candidate for defense secretary to replace retired Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, who abruptly withdrew his nomination this week.

Inman withdrew Tuesday, forcing Clinton to mark the official start of his second year in office with yet another empty Cabinet chair and a full-scale search underway for a quick replacement for Defense Secretary Les Aspin.Speaking on CNN's "Larry King Live" show, Clinton said he accepted the withdrawal by Inman, who had been his choice to replace Aspin. In his withdrawal, Inman lashed out at members of the media and charged that some were engaged in a campaign against him that he compared to "Mc-Car-thy-ism."

Clinton indicated he has a short list of candidates for the top job at the Department of Defense, but declined to name names or be any more specific.

"Let me just say this, I'm going to proceed in a deliberate but fairly quick way to name a secretery of defense, and then I'll talk about the process," Clinton said.

Earlier Thursday, government officials said the defense secretary's job was again spurned by the influential head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga.

But Clinton said he could not discuss whether Nunn was offered the job or if the senator declined, "otherwise I'd have to deal with all the other personalities I've considered."

"I will say this, that he would be a great secretary of defense, but he's got an awfully influential position now. We've been friends a long time," Clinton said.

Earlier, White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers declined to comment on the status of the search for a candidate, or to discuss possible names on any working list.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Perry has emerged as the leading candidate to succeed Aspin.