Now, The Whitewater Hearings Have Both Parties Nervous

Republicans have been counting on the congressional Whitewater hearings to be a political bonanza that would embarrass Bill Clinton and boost GOP prospects in the fall's midterm elections. But with the hearings set to open on July 26, GOP strategists are fretting that their expected summer blockbuster, Son of Watergate, will instead turn into a dud: Capital City Slickers II.

Why the letdown? Democrats have delayed the hearings and narrowed their scope, thanks in part to pleas from independent counsel Robert B. Fiske Jr., a Republican, to avoid issues that could jeopardize his investigation. Not only has interest in Whitewater waned, but Fiske's interim report on June 30 took the punch out of claims that the White House obstructed justice.

QUICK KILLING. It doesn't help that the GOP's point man in the Senate, Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.), is ethically tainted. Soon after the feisty New Yorker condemned the First Lady's wildly profitable commodities trading, he was hit by new disclosures about his own sweet stock deal.

With no new bombs in their arsenal to damage the Clintons, GOP leaders fear they'll come across as shrill partisans peddling stale allegations. "It would be a miracle if Republicans score points," admits House Banking Committee member Spencer T. Bachus III (R-Ala.).

That doesn't mean the Republicans will go down without a fight. They plan to push to explore several out-of-bounds subjects: the Justice Dept.'s handling of a Whitewater-related criminal referral; the contents of potentially sensitive documents removed from White House lawyer Vincent Foster Jr.'s office shortly after his suicide; and the Clintons' ties to Dan R. Lasater, a convicted cocaine dealer and onetime boss of White House aide Patsy L. Thomasson. By forcing House Banking Committee Chairman Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.) and his Senate counterpart, Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.), to bar such inquiries, the GOP aims to spark public demands for more hearings after Fiske's investigation is completed.

Meanwhile, the House Banking Committee's top Republican, Jim Leach (R-Iowa), is rushing to unearth some nasty nuggets. He's wrangling to get all Resolution Trust Corp. and Office of Thrift Supervision documents on the failed Arkansas thrift run by the Clintons' Whitewater partner, James B. McDougal.

Even without startling revelations, Democrats stand to lose. Clinton, who has taken a pounding from critics over his character and leadership, won't be helped by a redredging of political sludge. And new dirt could return the sleepy scandal to public consciousness.

BORING RERUN? A more likely scenario is that pesky Republicans will hammer Democrats for covering up ethical lapses stemming from questionable contacts between the Treasury Dept. and the White House. Their aim: goad the volatile Gonzalez into an unseemly eruption. Already, Republicans are complaining about his moves to weed out potentially damaging witnesses, such as RTC investigator L. Jean Lewis of Kansas City, who complained of political pressure from Washington. "If the hearings appear to be a cover-up, it will hurt the Democrats," warns L. William Seidman, former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

That's a risk Democrats are willing to take. But Republicans fret that the hearings could be boring, neither as riveting as the O.J. Simpson murder case nor as vital as health care. "The public is as annoyed at the people who keep bringing Whitewater up as they are at the alleged perpetrator," says GOP pollster Frank Luntz. In the end, Whitewater's winner may be the party that embarrasses itself the least.