Whitewater May Buffet Clinton's Reelection Bid

GOP will use case in Arkansas to raise character issue

Only days ago the flame of the Whitewater investigation appeared almost doused. Now it's burning with renewed vigor - and seems likely to stay lit until the November election.

Republicans plan to use the string of guilty verdicts won by Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr on Tuesday as ammunition in their attack on President Clinton's integrity. The president's former Whitewater business partners and the Democratic governor of Arkansas have now been labeled crooks by a jury of their peers, point out gleeful GOP analysts.

"This is a tremendous shot in the arm for Bob Dole," claims Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) of Wisconsin. "It highlights character as an issue in the upcoming election."

The White House points out that Mr. Clinton himself has been found guilty of nothing. Furthermore, experts say he's unlikely to even be charged with anything unless new evidence arises.

Nor is it clear that the conviction Will Whitewater Verdict Fuel Probe in Congress?

of James McDougal and Susan McDougal and Gov. Jim Guy Tucker (D) of Arkansas will change any votes in the days and weeks to come. Whitewater's tangled skein of loans and land deals remains confusing and distant news to many Americans.

"The Whitewater issue is not going to switch many voters' attitudes," argues American Enterprise Institute analyst Norm Ornstein. "To the degree that Bill Clinton's public support was affected by Whitewater and the character issue, we went through that two years ago."

If there's one clear winner from this week's verdicts it's prosecutor Starr and the Whitewater investigation itself. Starr, a former GOP Justice Department official, has been criticized by many Democrats for conducting his probe in what they deemed an overly partisan manner. He's also come under attack for continuing to represent private clients while serving as a government independent prosecutor.

Starr's case against the McDougals and Governor Tucker relied heavily on a complicated trail of documents. The charge - that the trio engaged in fraud and conspiracy as they funded risky real estate schemes via illegal loans - could have proved impenetrable to inattentive jurors.

Observers who sat through the trial were by no means sure it would end in conviction. White House officials were hoping for a verdict of innocent, which could have killed off Whitewater as a political issue entirely. The jury's resounding guilty decisions, however, could now embolden Whitewater investigators in the weeks ahead.

The McDougals or Tucker could be persuaded to turn state's evidence, and provide information incriminating to the president or first lady - if any such information is to be had.

Among other things, a Washington grand jury is continuing to hear testimony relating to the mysterious disappearance and reappearance of billing records from Hillary Clinton's old Little Rock law firm.

That part of his investigation "is very active" said Starr at a press conference on Tuesday.

All this makes Republicans think positively about the upcoming election. Bob Dole's campaign has already been reenergized by his resignation from the Senate. Now a news event has focused attention on Mr. Dole's central theme: character.

Whitewater itself isn't the only issue the verdicts will bring to the fore, argues Governor Thompson, who is himself a possible vice presidential candidate. It will also throw renewed light on the Paula Jones case alleging sexual harassment on the part of Clinton, and on the position changes Clinton has made on such things as welfare in his time in office.

"Politics being what it is right now, there's no question this is going to be a central issue in this campaign," says Thompson.

But that's just what the whole thing is, retorts the White House: politics. They say that a close reading of the evidence finds that this week's verdicts, if anything, exonerated Clinton's actions in Arkansas these many years ago.

The prosecution in Little Rock took pains to tell jurors that the president wasn't the person on trial. Furthermore, jury members indicated that in fact they found Clinton's videotaped defense testimony very credible. His appearance was just somewhat irrelevant to the facts that indicated guilt, they reportedly said.

Indeed, analysts say that no evidence so far has directly implicated either the president or the first lady in anything illegal. The one person to charge Clinton with wrongdoing - prosecution witness David Hale - is a convicted felon. Jurors said they did not believe Mr. Hale's testimony.

Overall, polls show that many voters believe vaguely that something unsavory happened in Arkansas in the '80s, say Democratic analysts. But they're not sure whether it was important, and many of them are convinced that the whole thing is still alive simply because Republicans are pursuing a political vendetta.

This week's verdicts might change opinions on that last point, say some experts. If Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York, chief Senate Whitewater investigator, makes a point, it's one thing. If an Arkansas jury brings in convictions, it's another. "A lot of people have been able to argue that the investigation was motivated by partisan politics," says Mr. Ornstein of AEI. "That has been deeply shaken."

And another Whitewater-related Arkansas trial is coming up. Starr's prosecutors will take on Arkansas bankers Herby Branscum Jr. and Robert Hill, who they charge illegally diverted bank funds into Clinton's 1990 gubernatorial campaign and other political races. The president is expected to testify in their defense, once again via videotape.

*Staff writer Kurt Shillinger contributed to this report.

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