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Why Whitewater May Spice Up Election

A FEW months back I argued that a poll showing a fading public interest in President Clinton's ''character'' problems was dead wrong. My readers soon set me straight. A majority of letters I received were vehement in their assertions that Mr. Clinton's personal failings - marital infidelity and fudgings on the draft - were subjects of the past. Some went so far as to say that Clinton's peccadillos were not relevant to deciding whether he was a good or bad president.

But none of these letter writers mentioned the president's and Hillary Rodham Clinton's business dealings in Arkansas and the questions being raised about the appropriateness and legality of their involvement in Whitewater. Should either or both be tarred by this scandal in the next few months, they indeed will have a character problem of large proportions. Mrs. Clinton's problems along this line would rub off onto the president.

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No one knows yet what independent counsel Kenneth Starr has learned about Whitewater. But we will know before the election. And now a new book - ''Blood Sport: The President and His Adversaries,'' by Pulitzer Prize-winner James B. Stewart - is expected to focus voter attention on the Clintons' role in the Whitewater scandal.

The Whitewater tale is complex, going back 20 years. Up to now, the public, and even members of the press who are covering the story, have found the ''ins'' and ''outs'' of the various transactions too intricate to understand. But ''Blood Sport'' is supposed to make it all comprehensible - enough so that the White House has seemed concerned about the book's political impact. Even before its publication the president's press secretary, Mike McCurry, is discounting the book, asserting that the author had come up with ''precious little news.'' But at least one analysis of the book, by writers who got their hands on a pre-publication copy, says it ''portrays the Clintons as often calculating in their business dealings and exploitative in their relationships with close friends.''

I'm bringing up Whitewater and its political potential because it seems to me that the Republicans are due for a defeat in November - unless Whitewater disclosures undercut the president's popularity.

Bob Dole seems likely to win the GOP nomination. Many voters will find a lot to like in the Kansan. He's a good man. He's a smart fellow. And he's had all those years in government service - experience that could help him become a competent president. He might make it to the presidency and if he does, the country might benefit by the change in administration.

But the polls continue to show that Clinton has as much as 10 percentage points over Mr. Dole. This advantage will narrow, but I don't think it will go away.

Clinton is ahead of Dole when it comes to personality, a word that becomes ''charisma'' when talking about candidates. The president's warmth draws even his opponents to his side. Speaker Newt Gingrich emerged from a tussle with Clinton over the budget with the admission that even in combat ''Clinton is hard not to like.'' In his new biography of Abraham Lincoln, David Herbert Donald says our Civil War president was a man who possessed ''immense personal magnetism.'' Well, that description certainly applies to Bill Clinton.

A Colin Powell could have beaten Clinton. Mr. Powell has the personality and substance necessary to get the job done. He could help Dole by taking the second spot on the ticket. But in the end, the voters always make their judgments on which of the two presidential candidates they prefer. Dole must do this on his own.

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When Dole recently called himself the ''comeback adult'' after a primary victory, it was, of course, a reference to Clinton's ''comeback kid'' description of himself during the 1992 primaries. Dole unintentionally was getting to the essence of the upcoming battle: Age against Youth. If it comes down to that - and if the Kid hasn't damaged himself terminally because of Whitewater - I think Youth will prevail.

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