Verdict May Taint President's Campaign

WASHINGTON -- Throughout the long trial in Little Rock, Arkansas, U.S. President Bill Clinton's top aides were monitoring developments virtually minute-by-minute. They explained their close attention with a nearly unanimous assessment. If the defendants there were acquitted, Whitewater could disappear as a campaign-year scandal.

Which is why, when the succession of guilty verdicts were read out in the courtroom in Arkansas on Tuesday, there was clear disappointment at the White House. Whatever else emerges in the tangled saga of Whitewater, Clinton's advocates acknowledged Tuesday, the scandal now may shadow the president right up to election day in November.

The Whitewater scandal has been marked by confusion and complication. Congressional hearings produced no bombshells, and politicians from both parties agreed the public was paying little attention.

But Tuesday's verdicts, in a case where the president appeared as a witness for the defense, produced the kind of clarity that had not previously existed: convictions of Clinton's former business partners, James and Susan McDougal, and the man who succeeded him as governor of Arkansas, Jim Guy Tucker.

"I think it has the potential to be a very significant event," said Earl Black, a political science professor at Rice University. "I think it will be interpreted as a situation in which the president's word was not persuasive to a jury of his own state."

The verdicts by themselves do not redefine the presidential race between Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole. But they keep alive gnawing questions that have plagued Clinton since the Whitewater case first unfolded and provide Republicans with a fresh opportunity to press the public to make character and credibility central issues this fall.

Although Clinton was not a defendant in the case, he stands to suffer politically from Tuesday's verdicts. While the White House and Democratic defenders pointed out that the case had nothing to do with the Whitewater land deal the Clintons and McDougals participated in, Republicans countered that his past business relationship with the McDougals -- and his appearance as a witness for the defense -- made him a central figure in the proceedings.

"It says to the American people there were some crimes committed here," said Greg Stevens, a Republican political consultant.

Now the Clinton team must worry about what comes next, as three weeks from now Starr's office is scheduled to bring a tax fraud case against two bankers who raised money for Clinton's 1990 gubernatorial campaign.