Whitewater Is Cold in California

Poll indicates even rock-ribbed Republicans don't buy it

FACED with months of internal bickering about the future of their party, and absent a coherent policy agenda going into the 1994 elections, Republicans are trying to sell Whitewater to the American public as a scandal serious enough to challenge Clinton's presidency. But the public is not buying it - not even voters well-known for an aversion to bleeding-heart, tax-and-spend Democrats.

In Orange County, Calif., one of the most conservative places in the nation, ``Whitewater the scandal'' just isn't selling. Orange County is Reagan country, home to Richard Nixon's ``Birthplace and Library,'' and favorite haunt for conservatives from around the nation seeking campaign funds.

Here, Republican voters outnumber Democrats 3 to 1 and send the likes of Robert Dornan, Dana Rohrabacher, and Chris Cox to the House of Representatives; they decisively supported conservative Bruce Herschensohn over Barbara Boxer in the 1992 United States Senate election. Every state legislator from Orange County save one is a Republican, more than two-thirds of the local elected officials are Republicans, and all five members of the County Board of Supervisors are Republicans.

Orange County is a place where Democrats are still variously referred to as communists, Marxists, Stalinists, socialists, leftists, reds, or traitors by a powerful GOP political machine.

Nevertheless, a recent poll conducted by the Orange County Register showed that a majority of Orange County residents think ``Whitewater is overblown.'' More specifically, 50 percent of the respondents think Whitewater is ``mostly about partisan politics''; only 26 percent believe it involves ``serious wrongdoing by the Clintons.''

When it comes to allegations of wrongdoing by the Clintons associated with Whitewater, 58 percent think such allegations are minor, 19 percent think they are serious, and 12 percent think there is nothing to the charges at all. Finally, 57 percent of the respondents think media coverage of Whitewater has been ``too great,'' 29 percent think it's been ``about right,'' and a scant 9 percent think it has been ``too little.''

Republican respondents in this survey are less likely than Democrats to see a partisan cabal driving the national fixation on Whitewater. But a majority of respondents from both parties think the Clintons are guilty only of ``minor wrongdoing,'' not serious enough to disable the presidency, and probably not sufficient to fulfill the immediate electoral ambitions of the GOP in Congress.

This public assessment of Whitewater comes after months of Clinton-bashing by the Register's opinion editors, the country's GOP political constabulatory, and most of the state and federal elected representatives in the area.

This isn't good news for Republicans. The GOP has staked a great deal of political capital, credibility, and time on the marketing of Whitewater. But if Republicans can't sell Whitewater in Orange County, they probably won't be able to sell it anywhere.

That will not stop talk-show impresario Rush Limbaugh, Sen. Alfonse D'Amato of New York, Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, or Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour from pontificating about the Clintons and Whitewater: To cease abruptly would constitute a public concession that all the talk was much to-do about nothing. But in electoral terms, how can the GOP afford to devote even more time marketing a political scandal in which Americans seem uninterested?

Eventually Republican leaders will realize that Whitewater will not help their candidates beat Democrats in the 1994 congressional elections. They still have time to begin addressing the substantive issues that dominate the public's agenda. But with primaries around the corner and the general elections looming, the opportunity for the GOP to change its campaign tune is running out. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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