President Bush said Monday he was "sick and tired" of the rumors and innuendoes against Defense Secretary-designate John Tower, and he asked senators to use "fairness and truth" in judging their former colleague.

In defiant defense of his embattled nominee before a Veterans of Foreign Wars audience, Bush said, "It is very interesting that not one single United States senator has challenged John Tower's knowledge on defense matters or his experience to do this job."I stand by this man," the president said. "I stand by him because he is uniquely qualified as the right man to take charge of the Pentagon."

Touting Tower as a fellow veteran, a lifelong public servant and "a fighter," Bush sought to rally support for the former senator before the resumption of Senate debate focused on allegations of personal and professional misconduct.

"I want to get it off my chest," he declared to applause. "I'm getting sick and tired of some of the rumors and innuendoes that are being used against this decent man!"

In a televised interview Sunday, part of a calculated public counterattack against detractors, Tower argued that the controversy had gone from being a question of qualifications to a partisan assault on presidential prerogatives.

"It would be damaging to the president if he withdrew my name or if I withdrew," Tower argued. "I think the rationale of the president is that if I'm voted down, he loses, but that if he withdraws my name, he loses."

Bush picked up on that theme in his speech to the VFW, insisting he and Tower are now locked in a fight for important principles, "like fairness and truth and principles like the prerogative of a president of the United States to assemble the most talented and qualified team to guide this country forward."

Before the Senate debate resumed Monday, a United Press International survey found nine senators still undecided or withholding public judgment. If they split along party lines, Tower would lose the nomination by a vote of 55-45.

However, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater told reporters that as long as debate dragged on, "there's always a chance" of gaining the five Democrats needed for a 50-50 split that could be broken by Vice President Dan Quayle.

Yet even some Republicans appeared resigned to accept defeat. Sen. William Cohen, R-Maine, gave Tower only "an outside chance" amid increased discussion about the political and practical consequences of Senate rejection.

A loss would mean severe embarrassment for a president in office less than two months, although Fitzwater denied that the White House had "squandered presidential credibility" on a fight that could not be won.

A defeat also would require Bush to move swiftly on a replacement capable of winning easy confirmation. Though White House officials and Tower himself scotched talk of a possible deal by which he would trade places with national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, Scowcroft remains one of several prominent experts in defense and foreign policy to enjoy bipartisan respect in Congress.

Republicans and Democrats demonstrated the partisanship over Tower as they offered starkly contrasting views Sunday about the contents of the extensive FBI background report on Tower and about the furor over the nomination.

On ABC's "This Week with David Brinkley," Cohen asserted the report included allegations "that are, in fact, lies," and he went on to say the confirmation process had "gotten out of hand."

But Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., one of a handful of Democrats the White House had looked to in vain for support, predicted that if the report was made public, "there would be no question that John Tower should not be secretary of defense." He suggested Tower withdraw his name from nomination.

Tower, though, vowed a fight to the finish and repeated his assertion that despite an admission of excessive drinking in the 1970s, he is not dependent on alcohol.

Asked on CBS's "Face the Nation" if he had given up alcohol, as he promised conditionally last week, he said: "I still have a sip of wine now and then. Once confirmed, I'll give it up all together."