Talking openly about impeachment, congressional Democrats led by House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt are distancing themselves from President Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky affair.

"It was wrong and it was reprehensible," Gephardt said Tuesday of Clinton's relationship with the former White House intern. Democrats don't want the sordid case to sabotage their fall election campaigns.Opening a three-day tour of close House races, the Missouri lawmaker pledged that Democrats won't blindly defend their president if impeachment proceedings are warranted.

"I think it's important for us to not be out there saying he's guilty of impeachment or not, as if we know," Gephardt said in an interview.

He declined to defend the president on central questions: Did Clinton ask Lewinsky to lie? Did he obstruct justice by trying to cover up the affair?

Gephardt said those questions will be answered after a careful review of prosecutor Kenneth Starr's report to Congress.

He even mused about the aftereffects of a president's removal from office. It would be rough on the nation, Gephardt said, but "this is also a strong country and we have strong processes."

Aides said the remarks reflected a growing feeling among Democrats that they are no longer willing to take Clinton's word at face value - not after being told for seven months that the president didn't have sex with Lewinsky.

It also underscores the Democrats' determination to avoid being linked to Clinton in competitive House races, where any hint of scandal could cost them a cherished seat.

And Tuesday's pledge may make Gephardt and his fellow Democrats look more credible and less partisan if they decide later to mount a defense for Clinton.

Gephardt had talked with fellow Democrats all day Monday and came away convinced that the greatest fear is the unknown; Democrats don't know what Starr's investigation has uncovered.

After Clinton's speech last week in which he admitted an inappropriate relationship with Lewinsky, the White House had asked Democratic lawmakers to quickly declare the controversy over. That didn't happen, and Gephardt's new comments suggested the president's party will be guided more by Starr's report than Clinton's word.

In Denver, Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, the Democratic Party chairman, told The Washington Post that Clinton's speech was inadequate and that the president must address the issue again.