Figuring out how 'Whitewater' will play with the voters


WASHINGTON -- The central political question in the controversy over Whitewater is whether it will flame out or dominate the presidential election. And if the latter, has it the potential for defeating President Clinton, or will it serve only to alienate more voters and turn them toward a third-party alternative such as Ross Perot or Dick Lamm?

Mr. Clinton's critics in the Republican Congress have exploited their own inquiry to a fare-thee-well, deftly leaking portions of the Senate Watergate Committee's report before releasing the whole yesterday with its accusations against Hillary Rodham Clinton and influential White House staff members.

For the White House, the problem is being compounded by other matters that don't bear directly on the central questions about the Whitewater land deal itself but are viewed by the press and perhaps the public as part of that inquiry.

These matters include the controversies over the White House travel office and the obvious misuse of FBI files by White House officials accused of looking for dirt on prominent Republicans, the trial in Arkansas of two bankers and the use of bank money to help finance then-Governor Clinton's 1990 re-election campaign, the conviction of three former business and political associates of the Clintons and sporadic developments in the sexual-harassment civil suit brought against Mr. Clinton by Paula Corbin Jones.

Ripples of uneasiness are starting among some Democrats. Consultants running Senate and House campaigns say privately that they are hearing more questions about the Clintons and these controversies than was the case a few weeks ago. Recent polls show in some cases a decline in Mr. Clinton's margin over Republican challenger Bob Dole.

No one knows whether Whitewater is an important factor in the tightening of the poll numbers. Mr. Dole has had a week or 10 days of generally favorable news coverage as he has left the Senate and asserted himself somewhat on the touchy abortion-rights issue. Moreover, no one who understands American politics considered Mr. Clinton's lead of 20 percentage points to be realistic. Senator Dole may not yet have shown himself to be a strong campaigner, but neither is he viewed as an alarming extremist as were such big-time losers as Barry Goldwater in 1964 or George McGovern in 1972.

A growing economy

The Democrats are reassuring themselves about Whitewater by pointing to other factors in the political equation. Perhaps most important is the fact that the economy is healthy, which always helps incumbents. Further, the unpopularity of Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and the House Republicans is an obvious burden for Mr. Dole as the Republican nominee.

Democrats also console themselves by pointing out that President Clinton carried heavy political baggage as a candidate in 1992, but voters, after factoring in his foibles, still preferred him for the presidency.

But Republicans may be justified in believing that any proof of wrongdoing since Mr. Clinton has been in the White House would be viewed differently by the voters -- particularly if independent counsel Kenneth Starr produces damaging material about either the first lady or prominent members of the White House staff.

There are obviously a plethora of ''ifs.'' We know, for instance, that voters already are suspicious of the ethics of politicians in general and President Clinton in particular. So would they see further revelations as something different or more of the same and to be expected?

The White House clearly recognizes that there is great peril in the allegations and investigations. That is why it has so aggressively responded either with accusations of Republican partisanship or, in the case of the FBI files, with an admission that a serious mistake was made by low-level aides and not part of any pattern of sinister behavior.

The only certainty is that any heavy bets on this election would be premature.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 6/19/96

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