Whitewater may spell end of Clinton's luck

US election trail: Republicans set to seize on guilty verdicts
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If politics is about luck, then this week's Whitewater convictions in Arkansas may go down as an election year watershed, the moment Bill Clinton's long winning streak ended. A period when seemingly nothing could go wrong is over. Five months before the November poll, the White House is again under legal threat and political siege.

For all the protestations that he was not involved in the events which led to the fraud convictions of Jim and Susan McDougal and the current governor of Arkansas, and that neither he or his wife Hillary has been charged over their past financial dealings, the former must most concern the President in the longer run.

The two-year investigation by the Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth Starr has gained a new lease of life, while in three weeks a second Whitewater case goes to court in Little Rock, involving two local bankers accused of improperly channelling money to Mr Clinton's 1990 campaign to become governor. Once more, the President may be asked to testify.

More ominous, perhaps, the American legal system takes few prisoners. While acquittal of the McDougals and Mr Jim Guy Tucker was still possible, others compromised in the case may have preferred to stay silent. Now, they may conclude that their best chance of avoiding a lengthy jail term is to co-operate with Mr Starr and incriminate others. This could be the calculation of Mr Tucker, who resigned as governor after the verdicts were read.

In the shorter political term, the verdicts spell only trouble for the Clintons - reinforcing the dynamic of what has been shaping up as a particularly nasty election campaign. All along, the problem for the Republicans and Bob Dole, the party's presumptive nominee, has been to find a way of convincing voters not to hand Mr Clinton a second term. Thus far they have had precious few openings; the economy is growing at a decent clip, inflation is under control, foreign policy mishaps have been avoided, and the President has co-opted popular Republican policies.

Above all, after mistakes that led to the 1994 mid-term election disaster, he has finally given the impression of getting the hang of the job. His opponents therefore have to go after Mr Clinton on the "character" issues of Whitewater, alleged philandering and the Vietnam draft, controversies that have dogged him since 1992.

The latest developments offer a truckload of new ammunition. As his aides ceaselessly point out, Mr Clinton was not involved. But a court of law has now found that Mr Tucker, his successor as governor of Arkansas, and the McDougals, his former business cronies, were crooks. New Congressional scrutiny of Whitewater and other unflattering episodes involving the Clintons, such as the sacking of the White House travel office staff in 1993, is inevitable.Mr Dole himself is taking the high road, refusing to cast judgement. Not so his henchmen, most notably Alfonse D'Amato, the combative New York Republican who chairs the Senate Banking Committee.

The committee had been due to wrap up its 18-month- long Whitewater probe next month, but Republicans will almost certainly seek to extend it. The convictions showed "the depth of the Whitewater tragedy", Senator D'Amato said yesterday on ABC's Good Morning America programme.

Small comfort for the White House were the words of jurors after the trial, variously describing the President's videotaped testimony as "magnificent" and asserting that there were no grounds to pursue investigation of the Clintons.

There are few illusions about Republican tactics. "Everything - including the kitchen sink - will be thrown at us," said Mrs Clinton.