LITTLE ROCK, ARK. — VETERAN Clinton-watchers here say they have learned to listen carefully to the Democratic presidential candidate.
In the last presidential debate, Gov. Bill Clinton vowed four times in quick succession that he will "not raise taxes on the middle class to pay for my programs."
Most listeners might have heard a commitment not to raise taxes on the middle class. Not the journalists who have watched Governor Clinton longest and closest in the microcosm of Arkansas state politics.
Several immediately noticed the line as a promise that would apply only to paying for programs he recommends.
"Clinton-watchers will recognize that as the rabbit hole he will dive through," says Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
"I do not think Bill Clinton's a liar," says Max Brantley, editor of the Arkansas Times and the strongest Clinton supporter among major columnists here. "I do think you have to listen to him very carefully."
Another Clinton supporter, John Brummett, political editor and columnist for the Arkansas Times, believes that the governor will say whatever he has to in a political jam.
He "chops up the truth in such tiny pieces" that they are hard to recognize "and parcels them out as he needs to," Mr. Brummett adds.
"He still `wools' me every once in a while, but I've learned to listen to him very carefully," says Meredith Oakley, who covered Clinton for years as a reporter before becoming a columnist for the Democrat-Gazette. She opposes his candidacy.
Clinton is not popular with the ranking political observers in the Little Rock press corps.
Those who do support him hold some strong misgivings, although even his opponents credit him with good intentions.
The picture that these journalists paint is of a politician so eager to please, to win every possible vote, to tell everyone what they want to hear, that his principles and policies often slip out of grasp.
"I criticize his vacillation, indecisiveness, trying to have it both ways," Brummett says. He supports Clinton anyway because he believes the governor's flaws are benign.
Still, he adds: "I'm not real optimistic about his chances to be a successful president."
His fear is that Clinton is too weak, compromises too quickly, and takes the politics of consensus to an extreme.
"He lacks the kind of decisiveness I would like to see," says the Arkansas Times's Mr. Brantley. But he adds that Clinton's "perceived weakness, that he is too eager to please or a waffler, is a byproduct of being a very strong builder of consensus."
But the journalists' strongest criticism of Clinton is that he lies - repeatedly, publicly, on matters large and small, both in the sense of false statements and of broken promises.
Some Arkansas journalists were stunned to hear Clinton's response in the last debate to a question about his evolving explanation of his encounter with the draft during the Vietnam War.
The governor said: "You know, I've been in public life a long time and no one had ever questioned my role and so I was asked a lot of questions about things that happened a long time ago. I don't think I answered them as well as I could have."
His dealings with the draft, however, have been controversial since his first gubernatorial campaign in 1978. The Arkansas press has been asking him about the matter for years.
"That was a flat-out lie," says John Robert Starr, a columnist at the Democrat-Gazette and a former managing editor at the now-defunct Arkansas Gazette.
"When he says these things," says Mr. Greenberg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and the most severely anti-Clinton of the major columnists, "he does not give off the usual telltale signs. It's almost uncanny or eerie, the smoothness with which he does this."
"Exhibit A" in the case against Clinton's credibility is his promise during the last gubernatorial campaign in 1990 not to run for higher office if reelected. His national ambitions were a major campaign issue because he was accused of neglecting Arkansas while building national networks.
His pledge was unequivocal, and some columnists, such as Mr. Starr and Ms. Oakley, took his breaking of it almost personally because he had made it to them face to face, individually, as well as to the Arkansas voters.
Starr was a Clinton defender for eight years, he says, "but that put him forever beyond the pale."
Oakley still gives him credit for good intentions, but not much for follow-through or action.
"He's easily distracted," she says. "He's all vision, no performance."
Brummett believes that Clinton sincerely cares about Arkansas, about schools, about race relations, and about the down- trodden.
"I think there's a decent, caring person under that smooth, electable veneer," he suggests.
He also believes that Clinton puts his ambition first, ahead of his principles.
"He wants 100 percent of the vote," he says.
Clinton is so eager to win people over, columnist Brummett says, that "the joke in Arkansas is the best way to get something from Bill Clinton is to go against him."