Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sought to quell burgeoning voter distrust Monday by reasserting his claim that he never rigged the decision-making process behind the opening of a rare, new veterinary department at a university run by his close friend Kotaro Kake.

Abe's appearance at an ad hoc session of the Lower House Budget Committee came amid plunging support for his scandal-tainted Cabinet that has clouded his prospects for winning a historic third term as president of the Liberal Democratic Party. A third term would last through 2021 and help him pursue his longtime dream of amending the pacifist Constitution.

A poll conducted over the weekend by the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper said Abe's popularity had sunk 10 points from the previous month to 26 percent — the lowest since he returned to power in December 2012. That follows a Jiji Press poll a few weeks ago that found his support had fallen below 30 percent for the first time.