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Tale of a First Lady Who Sits In a Washington Hot Seat ...

Mrs. Clinton's actions, illegal or not, could affect how people vote in November election

AMID the swirl of charges and countercharges surrounding Hillary Rodham Clinton, a core fact has at times been obscured: The first lady has not been accused of committing any crimes.

So, Washington wags wonder, why the appearance of a coverup? Even though some good news surfaced for Mrs. Clinton this week, at least regarding her role in the White House travel-office affair, the net effect remains one of a lingering odor over 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

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Her poll numbers reflect that. A USA Today Poll this week found that 52 percent of the public believes she's lying about her role in both the travel office and the Whitewater land-investment deal; 68 percent say they think she probably did something illegal or unethical.

This is not welcome news for her husband's reelection campaign. Even if only 1 or 2 percent of voters are dissuaded from voting for President Clinton because of his wife, that could make the difference between reelection and defeat in a close race. Mr.. Clinton may not have the luxury again of winning the Oval Office with only 43 percent of the vote, as he did in 1992.

''Consciously or subconsciously, [the first lady's troubles] definitely affect the way people vote,'' says James Rosebush, Nancy Reagan's former chief of staff and author of a book on first ladies. ''Hillary Clinton knows exactly what the stakes are. She could cost Bill Clinton his reelection.''

Furthermore, says Mr. Rosebush, the Clintons brought this upon themselves. By playing such a high-profile role early on as head of the president's health-care reform effort, Mrs. Clinton was thus positioned as a serious policy partner of her husband, almost a second vice president. The public was asked to take her seriously and respect her intelligence.

Now, the question is whether the first lady, and the people who worked under her and her husband, have been devious or just disorganized. It has been difficult for many to believe that Mrs. Clinton, an attorney who responds to questions with impenetrable precision, is merely an innocent bystander.

The good news for the Clintons that emerged this week came in congressional testimony on the travel office flap. Former White House aide David Watkins said under oath that Mrs. Clinton did not order him to fire the travel office staff. Earlier notes by Mr. Watkins that surfaced recently indicated that he was under pressure from the first lady to fire the travel office. But Mrs. Clinton has insisted that she never ordered the firings, maintaining that she had just expressed concern about the possible financial problems in that office.

Thus, Mrs. Clinton appears to have emerged from that flap, for now, bruised but unbloodied.

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Whitewater is a different matter. Senate testimony, proceeding this week from lawyers and officers from Mrs. Clinton's old law firm in Arkansas, continues like the drip, drip, drip of water torture.

It would be difficult to believe that many average citizens are paying close attention to every twist and turn in the Byzantine case of an Arkansas real estate investment gone bad, a failed savings and loan, and the newest player to enter the stage, the Castle Grande land transaction.

But the overall effect has taken hold: Most of the public think the first lady did something wrong.

Her response, in the last week, has been to take it right back to the public: She's launched her 10-city tour to promote her new book on children, heading first into the bosom of people who will embrace her and not ask tough questions, Little Rock, Ark. After months of lying low, she has plastered her face and voice all over the national news media, doing the rounds of network television and radio and granting interviews to major publications.

The book was meant to unveil the new softer Hillary in time for her husband's campaign, but it has competed for attention with endless Whitewater and travel office questions. Rosebush, who had his own experience trying to help a first lady with an image problem, says Mrs. Clinton is taking the right course.

''Getting out there with the people - she's doing what she has to do; she can't hide,'' says Rosebush. ''But she needs something stronger than the book to move the press off the old story.''

The problem with Whitewater and the travel office, from a public relations standpoint, is that new elements dribble out every day, producing a drumbeat of news coverage. The latest on the travel office is that Mrs. Clinton will be asked to respond in writing to questions from the House Committee investigating the flap.

In the first lady's press office, the staff is philosophical. When asked if the book is a good thing because it deflects some attention from scandals or whether it's too bad the book is being overshadowed, deputy press secretary Neel Lattimore demurs. ''It never works out to be a day without a cloud in the sky,'' he offers.

But he maintains faith in his boss's ability to weather the challenge: ''She's her own best defender.''

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