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TESTING THE LIMITS OF CREDULITY

Dubious presidential pardons, removal of White House furniture and solicitation of pricey gifts have dimmed some of the luster from Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate debut.

Revelations of a presidential pardon for a fugitive financier, the removal of furniture from the White House and the solicitation of expensive gifts in advance of her departure as first lady have made for a rocky start to Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate career.

Those revelations also have done much to erase her image as a wife victimized by husband's peccadilloes or a right-wing conspiracy, former supporters say.

The victim argument "is not going to be useful to her much longer," said Toni Michelle Travis, a professor of government at George Mason University.

"She can't claim she knows nothing," said Travis, a specialist on racial and women's issues. "I think she can't claim she was just an innocent bystander."

High on the list of problems spoiling her fresh start are Senate and House hearings into Bill Clinton's pardon of Marc Rich in his final hours as president.

Rich's ex-wife, Denise, gave between $70,000 and $110,000 in soft money to Hillary Clinton's campaign last year and has contributed $1 million to other Democratic candidates since 1993. In addition, she has made a large donation to the Clinton presidential library.

At the same time, Denise Rich lobbied heavily for Rich's pardon, which Sen. Clinton says she knew "nothing about."

Sen. Clinton's office has declined to respond to written questions submitted to her by The Buffalo News about Denise Rich's campaign contributions.

Democratic senators have not criticized their new colleague about the pardon, but many have been severely critical of the former president.

"The pardoning of fugitives stands our criminal-justice system on its head," Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York said Wednesday.

And many people believe Sen. Clinton will surmount these present difficulties.

Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon said the issue of the presidential pardon does not reflect at all on the senator. He considers the investigations by the Republican-led Senate and House panels into the Rich pardon just more political piling on.

"If they don't have something to use as an outlet for their hatred of the Clintons, it's like them going without a meal," Pigeon said.

The pardon of Rich is not the only one, though, that has some people asking questions about the former first lady's role in that executive privilege.

She also has said she had "no role" in the pardon her husband gave to four members of a Rockland County Hasidic Jewish Community convicted of defrauding the federal government out of tens of millions in connection with a fictitious school in Brooklyn.

On Dec. 22, however, then-first lady Clinton, along with the president and other officials, met in the White House with representatives of the community that pleaded for those pardons.

That Hasidic community delivered 99.3 percent of its vote for Clinton in last fall's Senate race, compared with an average statewide return of about 53 percent of the Jewish vote in her race against Republican Rep. Rick A. Lazio of Long Island.

The Clintons are also plagued by criticisms about their removal and ultimate return of $28,000 in furniture, which had been donated to the White House, and a reported solicitation of $190,000 worth of expensive gifts, an effort designed to avoid Senate rules on acceptance of gratuities before Hillary Clinton was sworn in.

The Clintons insist that the conversion of White House property to their own use resulted from confusion among officials in the Executive Mansion.

Regarding the $190,000 worth of gifts, primarily to furnish new homes, the Clintons said those were in line with gifts taken home by other former presidents.

No explanations of pardons

But it is the presidential pardon issue that has been drawing the most criticism. No voice in Congress has defended the presidential pardons of Rich and the Hasidim, and few are rising to explain Sen. Clinton's role.

Schumer and Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, two strong supporters of Clinton's Senate campaign, have declined to comment on her role in the controversy.

More questions are likely to surface about Clinton's "New York Senate 2000" multiparty fund, which received two gifts of $25,000 each from Denise Rich before Election Day, and gifts of $15,000 and $5,000 from Rich after election, according to Sheila Krumholz, analyst at the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Krumholz said this data comes from reports filed with the Internal Revenue Service. Sen. Clinton, former Sen. John D. Ashcroft of Missouri, now the U.S. attorney general, and several other candidates used a loophole in election laws to create multiparty political action committees to bypass the $2,000 limit on individual contributions to federal campaigns.

A political analyst at Brown University, Darrell West, said he thinks that liberal academic community is disappointed in the senator.

"I am hearing a lot of complaints about the Clintons," West said. "Yes, I think that 'right-wing conspiracy' argument is wearing thin."

Some students at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, said professor John Frei, "think the Clintons are ripping us off.

"A lot of the students say that they are tired of the Clintons; they're hearing more of the same thing -- shady behavior. They're disappointed in her."

Speaking personally, Frei said Clinton seems to believe that she needs to be treated in a special way, "that she has a feeling of entitlement."

The Clintons, he said, "seem to brazenly do things when they know they are going to be criticized for them."

But the Clintons are not without supporters in the controversy.

Michael Haselswerdt, a political science professor at Canisius College, thinks that the Clintons continue to be victims of political right-wingers and a sensation-seeking news media.

"I don't think she's done anything wrong by taking it," Haselswerdt said of Hillary Clinton's accepting of campaign contributions from Denise Rich. "At the same time, it would be wise of her to determine whether or not it was legal, and, if not, she should definitely give it back."

Haselswerdt cautioned that Clinton is "not as careful as she needs to get."

Book deal draws criticism

Pigeon said he does not see all the commotion as harming Sen. Clinton's reputation. "I don't think that she needs to comment on the pardons," Pigeon said, adding that local Democrats are showing little interest in the controversy.

Others, sitting in a government watchdog role, see the need for the senator to look at damage control, which would start with a return of Rich's campaign donations.

Clinton also ought to reshape her "totally scandalous book deal" in which she took an $8 million advance rather than royalties, said Gary Ruskin, head of the nonpartisan Congressional Accountability Project.

Clinton has insisted that she did not break any Senate rules because the book transaction with Viacom occurred before she was a senator.

"All that is is her thumbing her nose at any reasonable standard of ethics," Ruskin said. "Instead of taking the high road, she chose to exploit a loophole. The book deal looks like an attempt by a major media power to put money into the pocket of an influential senator."

'Should take the high road'

Ruskin added that Clinton "needs major damage control. She should change the book deal so she only receives royalties, admit her mistakes and return the (contributions from Denise Rich)."

"The Senate is not the Oval Office," said Lee Miringoff of the Marist Poll. "Her husband has lost the power of the White House, and a little bit of that consciousness has to apply to her, too."

In selecting her Senate staff, Clinton brought to Capitol Hill several key White House aides. Chief among them is James E. Kennedy, now her communications director and speechwriter. Among his White House jobs was handling media queries during the Clinton impeachment episode.

James E. Campbell, political science professor at the University at Buffalo, predicts that the senator will weather this storm, as she has all the others since the 1992 presidential campaign.

But he also thinks that she "should take the high road, and make it plain that if illegal foreign contributions got into her campaign, she would want it returned."

News Washington Bureau Assistant Joseph Husted contributed to this report.

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