Congressional foes see makings of a Watergate; but voters yawn

Whitewater Investigations Fail To Damage Clinton, Thus Far

REPUBLICAN politicians are gamely trying to make the Whitewater affair stick to the Clinton White House.

Comparisons to Watergate abound - or at least to Spiro Agnew, whose misconduct before he became vice president eventually forced him out of the White House.

But as Republicans prepare to take the president to court over Whitewater-related notes, are they hitting political pay dirt? On one level, say analysts from both parties, the recent escalation of Whitewater wrangling obviously does not help President Clinton. Front-page articles raising allegations that important documents may have vanished deflect attention from House Speaker Newt Gingrich's own ethics troubles.

Rep. Bill Martini (R) of New Jersey says that "only recently" has Whitewater come up in discussions with constituents when he's back in his district. "I think they've finally seen that some of the national press are no longer saying this is a fishing expedition," says Congressman Martini, a moderate freshman.

But there are no public data to indicate that Americans' concern over the matter, which centers on an Arkansas real estate venture and a failed savings and loan institution, has heightened substantially in recent weeks. President Clinton, in fact, scored his highest approval rating in two years - just over 50 percent - in a New York Times/CBS poll last week. Pollsters attribute that boost to the budget battle.

By contrast, pollsters say they've done very little polling on Whitewater. "It's a single-digit issue, or less," says Republican consultant Eddie Mahe. "But if, if, underline that in big letters, there are significant indictments from [special prosecutor Kenneth] Starr, it would dramatically change the situation for the public, and could have a serious impact on the president."

The integrity thing

A significant indictment, says Mr. Mahe, would reignite the integrity issue that has long dogged Clinton. "If that issue pops up again, he'd go back down to 43 percent approval rating again," which is his base of support.

As the week wound down, the president was defensively trying to make the Whitewater issue go away. In an interview published in yesterday's Los Angeles Times, Clinton declared that the multimillion-dollar inquiry has produced "not a shred of evidence that we had done anything whatever wrong."

"What I think about this is that a lot of this is politics," he added.

A compromise

At week's end, the White House was working to avoid a court battle over a congressional request for notes from a Nov. 3, 1993, meeting between Clinton's private attorneys, White House lawyers, and other White House officials. The president has claimed that being forced to relinquish the notes would violate his attorney-client privilege, but he has agreed to give them up as long as Congress agrees that he still maintains that right. The Senate Whitewater Committee and special prosecutor Starr have both agreed to that condition; at time of writing, the House Whitewater Committee had not.

If no agreement is reached, the issue could go to federal court, following the full Senate's vote Wednesday to ask a federal judge to order the White House to comply with subpoenas asking for the notes. The prospect of a court battle raises the specter of Watergate, an allusion the White House wants to avoid.

Even if, from a legal viewpoint, fighting the subpoenas does not mean an admission of guilt, that is how the public could perceive it. "Someone in the White House got smart enough to figure that out," says Mahe, and thus the search for a compromise ensued.

Unless there's a major break in the case, Democratic pollster Del Ali says the Republicans could have a hard time mortally damaging the president's reelection campaign with Whitewater. Democrats could start by raising Republicans who have come up on ethics charges, including Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York, chair of the Senate Whitewater committee. "If Whitewater is the issue the Republicans plan to run on, they'll have their heads handed to them," says Mr. Ali.

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