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D'AMATO'S POPULARITY WANES AS VERDICT NEARS

After 53 public hearings, 264 depositions and $1.3 million in costs, the Senate's intensive year of Whitewater inquiry is wending to an anticlimactic close with Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato still presiding, but with his poll ratings on the wane and his humility noticeably on the rise.

"Oh, they're very good, very successful at this," D'Amato said of the Democrats' defense of President Clinton, whose own poll standing has resurged despite the inquiry."`I don't remember, I don't remember, I don't remember,"' the senator intoned crankily, offering a mantralike summary of White House witnesses who have frustrated him.

This amounts to high tribute from one of politics' most combative professionals: grudging respect for the White House in managing if not muffling the tangled issue as the November elections approach.

In the dying moments of the laborious process, it is D'Amato himself who seems more bowed than his Whitewater targets. His signature feistiness is lately employed more in talk of long-range vindication than of smoking-gun certitude.

"No one has ever accused them of being amateurs," D'Amato said of the Clinton administration. "They're very astute. The constant chant of `This is nothing more than politics; the hearings have no merit.' They're creating very substantial doubt as to the work and credibility of the committee's efforts."

As the hearing process quietly fades toward a June 17 deadline to produce a report of findings, the final hours have been flaring with Democrats decidedly on the rebound. They accuse D'Amato of presiding over a political "witch hunt" that proved rank with innuendo and little decisive evidence comprehensible to the average voter.

"The public is bored to tears with this thing," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, general chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a member of the Whitewater panel. Dodd has sat across from Mr. D'Amato in counterpoise, a rival presidential strategist who parses each nuance of testimony even as D'Amato serves as a principal in Sen. Bob Dole's campaign.

"The public thinks it's a huge waste of money and time," Dodd said of the inquiry, citing Democratic polls that he said show fewer than one in five voters were interested.

He said he planned to cite Whitewater in the campaign as a symptom of "Gingrich-Dole" priorities.

"It's boomeranged on the Republicans," Dodd said. "The fact that we've spent so much on this and Ruby Ridge and Waco, with virtually no hearings on Medicare, education, the environment, has become a huge liability for this Congress."

Hillary Rodham Clinton, the most celebrated target of the more suspicious Republicans on the committee, exemplified the Democrats' sense of turnabout this week when she beamed under the televised questioning of Larry King, in contrast to her subpoenaed testimony before a Whitewater grand jury last January.

D'Amato continued: "They're fabulous, with spin doctors at it every day. I can hold my head up. We've been thorough and treated people fairly. I've gone out of my way even with people who have not been candid with the committee."

But Democrats on the committee have been near chortling lately in sensing that the laborious hearings are ending with little sensational fuel for the election.

"I knew Bob Dole was in trouble, but not this much trouble," Dodd commented in the midst of a fractious hearing on May 8.

The Republican majority had enraged Democrats with speculative staff testimony focusing on Mrs. Clinton as the most likely suspect in the mystery of Whitewater-related law firm records, documents that were discovered in the White House months after they were subpoenaed.

Even at its most graphic with this mystery, the inquiry thus far has failed to stir great public indignation or discernible electoral dividends. Some of D'Amato's loyalists concede that a muddled situation seems to have harmed his popularity more than the president's.

"Short-term, it has hurt Al politically," said Rep. Peter T. King, a New York Republican who estimated that a ratings drop of about 10 percentage points would be recovered by the senator.

"The image comes across that the hearings go on and on and nothing new is coming out. Actually, Al has done a very good job, thorough and fair, and as events unfold he will be vindicated."

D'Amato offers the stolidness of a Rocky in saying: "It's probably had some adverse impact, but you got to do what you have to do. With leadership comes responsibility."

He emphasized that Whitewater and offshoot issues pursued in separate criminal inquiries had seen nine people plead guilty to various charges, and several administration officials resign.

"Remember, the story starts down in Little Rock but continues into the administration," D'Amato said, noting that the Senate felt obliged to vote overwhelmingly to look into the affair.

Clinton's campaign strategists expect no end of Whitewater as an issue, regardless of the June 17 committee report. But they take comfort in the hearings' effect on D'Amato's standing two years before his current term ends.

Ann Lewis, deputy manager of the Clinton re-election campaign, put it this way: "I don't think it's a coincidence that, in a period of some of those most visible, most aggressive at interrogating people connected to the White House, D'Amato's own approval ratings went down substantially. Here was a guy with his own ethics investigation behind him setting himself up to be ethics czar for the nation."

D'Amato contends that the presidential season colors his labors. "I think they were able to break the momentum and the interest of people in what the committee was doing," he said.

He added that Senate Democrats succeeded in a two-month standoff in which they defeated an open-ended extension of the hearings as the inquiry failed to generate public heat.

"As we got closer into the political season, it gave greater weight and possible validity to their claims that this is politics," D'Amato said.

Referring to Clinton, he added: "I've always said I don't think this guy is going to be easy, and he's not. And he's got a cadre of people who are loyal to him, no doubt about that, to the point where they were willing in some cases to make themselves look absolutely silly with all that `I don't remember, I don't remember."'