Interest in funds issue likely to fade Even some in GOP say perilous cloud lifted from White House

December 03, 1997|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Janet Reno went out of her way yesterday to stress that the FBI's investigation of possible wrongdoing in the 1996 campaign will continue.

"Today's decisions represent," she said, "a snapshot, not an ending."

But for President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, at least, it appears to be a major turning point.

Reno's decision to shut down an independent counsel inquiry into their fund-raising calls will enable Clinton and Gore to start moving beyond the campaign finance affair that has dogged them for more than a year. Most legal analysts believe that Reno's rejection of a wide-ranging independent counsel investigation makes it unlikely that the Justice Department will bring criminal charges against either man.

A storm of Republican criticism greeted yesterday's ruling. Even though Congress is in recess for the year, the partisan sniping over Reno and the independent counsel law is likely to continue for at least a while.

Still, the sighs of relief from the White House seemed almost audible throughout the capital. Gore's team, in particular, had much to celebrate.

"I really do hope that this is the beginning of putting this behind us and getting on with the business of the country," said Jack Quinn, a former Clinton White House counsel and close Gore adviser.

Unlike Clinton, who won't be facing the voters again, Gore is already hard at work on his undeclared campaign for the presidency in 2000. He, not Clinton, appeared before reporters last night to express pleasure with Reno's decision.

Privately, some Republicans agreed with Clinton aides that a potentially destructive cloud had been lifted from the White House.

"They got away with it," remarked a former top Republican Party official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "And I think that the public will want it to be the end of it."

Clinton's 'scar tissue'

Clinton is already the subject of a long-running independent counsel investigation into the Whitewater affair. His popularity has remained high throughout the past year, and it is unlikely that the latest turn of events will have much of an impact, analysts said.

"He's got a lot of scar tissue on his weak points, such as the character issue," said pollster Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center.

Gore, however, is just coming into focus for many Americans. Over the past year, his once-bright image has been tarnished as details have emerged of his role in collecting millions of dollars in contributions from corporations, labor unions and wealthy donors.

As he looks toward 2000, one of his tasks will be to try to erase the "solicitor-in-chief" label he earned as a result of his aggressive fund-raising efforts in 1995 and 1996.

"For Gore, this is not a bad outcome," said Republican pollster Bill McInturff.

"Repairing damage is a lot more preferable than waiting for the other shoe to drop," he said.

Iran-contra parallel

White House aides like to draw a parallel between Gore and George Bush, the last vice president who tried to succeed a two-term president -- and who won despite being tarred by the Iran-contra scandal.

Though Iran-contra was regarded as a more serious matter by the public than the 1996 campaign finance affair, Bush managed to keep his distance by claiming to have been "out of the loop" when decisions were made.

Bush "never had to go before the camera and say there was 'no controlling legal authority,' remarked Charles O. Jones, a University of Wisconsin political scientist, referring to Gore's inept performance at a news conference last winter. Jones predicts that the campaign money issue will continue to hamper Gore heading into 2000.

Yet even his potential rivals doubt that Gore has been irrevocably hurt. Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, a possible contender for the Democratic nomination, said he thought Gore had been only "marginally" damaged.

Critics contend that Clinton and Gore violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the public-financing law that barred them from raising and spending millions in private contributions for the 1996 campaign.

But they have said that they were acting within the law and that the money they collected was for the Democratic Party, not their own re-election effort.

FBI Director Louis J. Freeh was among those who argued that only a wide-ranging independent counsel investigation could determine whether Clinton and Gore had broken any laws.

Reno, however, rejected that approach, as she had in turning down previous requests for an independent counsel.

Teamsters, Babbitt probes

Republican attorney Joseph diGenova, a former special prosecutor himself, said there was nothing surprising about Reno's decision, given her previous refusals to consider a broad-based independent investigation.

He said that the biggest legal danger to Clinton and Gore at this point could well be the campaign finance investigation of the Teamsters' union, which is being run out of the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan.

"The thing they have to be worried about is New York, not Washington," he said.

Other possible legal traps for Clinton and Gore could be sprung if an independent counsel is appointed to investigate Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's 1996 denial of an Indian casino license, which has been linked to Democratic fund raising as well.

The most likely outcome, however, is that whatever interest the public had in the campaign finance controversy will now begin to fade, despite Reno's insistence that her action does not end the story.

"There is a danger that people will see it as a clearing of what happened in 1996," said Fred Wertheimer, a veteran campaign reform advocate. "There is also a danger that that's what it's going to be."

Pub Date: 12/03/97

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