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Public Tunes Out 'Circle of Scandal' In Nation's Capital

Clinton isn't hurt badly by ethics swirl - yet

It's been a bad work week for President Clinton in Washington, what with Whitewater, "Filegate," and related ethics charges filling the news. But as he decompresses this weekend with a jog or perhaps a canasta session at Camp David, the president may well try and focus on this fact: So far, US voters just don't care about all these controversies.

It's not that Americans judge Mr. Clinton as clean as Arkansas dew, say pollsters. It's that Washington's post-Watergate circle of scandal, in which accusers themselves inevitably stand accused, has desensitized many to cries of corruption. Voters think other things are more important - such as the state of the economy.

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That may not be good news for the campaign of presumed GOP nominee Bob Dole, which has relentlessly tried to focus on candidate character. Indeed, the latest voter polls show Mr. Dole still trailing Clinton by a wide margin in both the nation as a whole and key states such as New York, Florida, and California.

"A lot of people just view Whitewater and all this stuff as partisan drumbeating," says Earl de Berge, a Phoenix pollster.

That could still change before the November election, of course. Within Washington itself, the various ethics charges dogging the White House have received lots of attention in recent weeks.

The fraud convictions of two ex-business associates of Clinton and Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker won by Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr caused many reporters, lawmakers, and others inside the beltway to look at the issue with a new seriousness. And even administration aides worry that the so-called Filegate controversy, in which White House officials improperly obtained hundreds of FBI personnel files, including those of political opponents, is clear and simple enough to eventually sway votes.

Then there are the legal troubles of White House aide Bruce Lindsey, perhaps the president's closest friend and political associate. Mr. Lindsey will reportedly be named an "unindicted co-conspirator" in a bank fraud trial just opened by independent counsel Starr's office in Little Rock. That's a development that sounds a little too Nixonian for comfort to many administration officials.

If Starr turns up new evidence that clearly shows wrongdoing on the part of the president or first lady - a so-called "smoking gun" - then Clinton's reelection will, of course, be in question, say analysts. But absent that, the biggest political danger to the White House from all the ethics charges may be a drip, drip of continued Whitewater-related news.

"If you have a steady drumfire of these things, after a while the repetition might impact the public consciousness," says California pollster Mervin Field.

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But so far Whitewater, Filegate, et al., seem about as popular with Americans as a bomb summer movie. Consider the numbers: An ABC/Washington Post poll released this week shows Clinton maintaining a commanding 55 percent to 35 percent lead over Dole. A Field poll this week found the president with a 57 to 34 percent edge in California. In New York, a Quinnipiac College Polling Institute study shows Clinton up by 63 to 30 percent; in Florida, a New York Times regional poll showed a 48 to 35 Clinton margin.

By the poll numbers

Earlier this month one big poll, taken by CNN/Time, showed Dole trailing Clinton by only six points. The pollsters who conducted the study, however, say they now believe their numbers reflected a two-day blip of support for Dole in the wake of his emotional retirement from the Senate.

It isn't that Americans aren't aware of the swirling ethics charges - or that they think Clinton didn't do anything wrong. National polls have consistently shown that a majority of US voters believe the president is hiding something about his involvement with the failed Whitewater land deal. Last week, a Newsweek survey showed that 58 percent of respondents believe Clinton is "knowingly covering up" damaging Whitewater information.

But the same poll found that 65 percent didn't think scandal questions would affect their vote. In other words, say pollsters, voters tend to think that other aspects of Clinton are more important than his character.

Look at the electoral prize of California. Granted, it's a Clinton stronghold, but "concerns about his character are showing up here," says Bruce Cain, a University of California Berkeley political scientist. In this week's Field poll, Dole rated much better than Clinton on character. But 61 percent said that "where candidates stand on issues" is their most important voting influence - and 62 percent said Clinton was the candidate closest to their own stands.

Scandal charges may just have become too common. Nowadays, accusations seem to come around in a never-ending circle. "The level of tolerance has gone up," says Mr. Field. "Somewhere along the line in the last 20 years, the public has decided we just can't expect these guys to be holy."

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