Notwithstanding the public's apparent weariness over the 3-1/2-year Whitewater investigation - or perhaps because of it - independent counsel Kenneth Starr is accelerating his probe of President Clinton, outwardly undeterred by last week's dismissal of the Paula Jones case.
But it's obvious that Mr. Starr, criticized for using aggressive tactics in his investigation, is not the most popular man in America. Now, as public disapproval of Starr increases - and the likelihood of a presidential indictment diminishes - doubt is growing that his final report to Congress can serve as the basis of impeachment hearings.
To improve his chances, Starr has even tried unsuccessfully to hire a well-known legal reporter from the mainstream press to consult on the final report.
"The public-relations problem is a significant one for Ken Starr, and ... he has been outflanked by an adept White House," says political scientist Steven Schier of Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.
To proceed or not to proceed?
Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill are aware that impeachment hearings, more political than legal in nature, could backfire if used against a popular president in the absence of convincing evidence of wrongdoing.
Speaking on C-SPAN over the weekend, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia anticipated the report with caution. "They have spent several years building a case, and in six or eight weeks they're going to report. If they report trivia, we shouldn't have hearings. If they report substance, we don't have any choice except to have hearings."
"You could have a whole bunch of evidence, none of which is particularly stunning," says Mr. Schier. The report "could be plausible in creating the possibility of an elaborate obstruction-of-justice attempt. But if none of the evidence is all that dramatic, it may not matter."
In the past week, Starr has picked up the pace of his probe. The possibility that he may indict former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, while naming Mr. Clinton as an unindicted co-conspirator, has critics saying anew that Starr is a prosecutor out of control. Naming someone as an unindicted conspirator means the prosecutor believes that individual was involved in wrongdoing, but chooses not to file formal charges.
"This is harassment of the president," says Iran-contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, who faced similar criticism of his seven-year investigation of the Reagan administration over charges of selling weapons to Iran and funneling the money to anti-Communist contra rebels in Nicaragua.
Mr. Walsh says Starr has no legal grounds to pursue the Lewinsky matter now that Jones v. Clinton has been dismissed. (In that case, Ms. Lewinsky and Clinton both denied having had a sexual relationship - but tape recordings of her conversations might indicate otherwise.)
"As a practical matter, it is going to be difficult to establish materiality. I think any professional prosecutor would think twice before trying to prove perjury or suborning perjury in this case," Walsh says.
Last week, Marcia Lewis, Monica Lewinsky's mother, faced another round of questioning from Starr's prosecutors, again testifying against her own daughter. Starr has also subpoenaed Lewinsky's book purchases, sparking anger and protests by First Amendment advocates.
Public to Starr: Wrap things up
In a bid to exploit those unpopular moves, Democrats on Capitol Hill and the White House are continuing their calls for Starr to wrap up his investigation. "The American people should be concerned about where he is going," says a White House source. "Ultimately, Mr. Starr must recognize that he has a duty to the public interest."
In a Newsweek survey released Saturday, 57 percent of Americans said Starr should end his Clinton-Lewinsky investigation. Sensing Starr's vulnerability, Lewinsky's lawyer, William Ginsburg, is focusing his fire on Starr's image problem. "Have you no shame, sir?" he asked rhetorically over the weekend of Starr's investigative practices. "How about the will of the American people?"
The courts give independent counsels virtually unlimited resources for executive oversight, but they can't bestow public support. Inside the Starr camp, investigators are frustrated and angry by the public response.
"It does hurt to see people attack him," Starr spokeswoman Debbie Gershman says of the personal criticism focused on the independent counsel and his staff. Some of the 41 staff members working 16-hour days on the case question why there isn't more effort from those outside to understand the difficulty of their task.