WASHINGTON -- It's being called Virginia's Watergate.
And it has many of the same elements of that infamous scandal: Tapes. Enemies. Possible cover-up. Allegations of politically inspired investigations.
At the center of it all is Sen. Charles S. Robb, a first-term Democrat and son-in-law of Lyndon B. Johnson, who is now the target of a federal grand jury investigation into wiretapping and misreporting of campaign funds.
Virginia Democrats and political observers are debating whether the latest allegations against Mr. Robb -- which include renewed charges of sexual affairs -- have all but doomed the career of the 52-year-old former Marine, whose straight-arrow image and moderate leanings once fueled talk of a presidential or vice presidential candidacy.
Now there are questions about whether he can hold on to his Senate seat in 1994.
"Robb has built his entire career on personal qualities like integrity," said Larry J. Sabato, a government professor at the University of Virginia. "This goes to the heart of that appeal."
Last week a former top aide to Mr. Robb pleaded guilty to charges of campaign fraud and wiretapping involving a taped telephone conversation of the senator's political enemy, Democratic Gov. L. Douglas Wilder. The former aide, David K. McCloud, also signed a statement contradicting much of what the senator told the grand jury last summer.
Despite earlier denials by the senator, Mr. Robb was closely involved early on with his staff about how the tape should be handled and leaked to the news media, McCloud said in his statement. The tape, recorded by a friend of Mr. Robb who also has pleaded guilty, involved Mr. Wilder's discussion about the senator's alleged extramarital affairs and the political fallout.
McCloud said he "immediately advised Senator Robb" about the tape and kept him "fully advised" throughout the period, according to his court statement.
"I testified voluntarily, truthfully and fully before the grand jury," Mr. Robb said after the court action. "I can only repeat here what I said before: I have told the truth and I stand by every word I have ever uttered on the subject."
A source familiar with the investigation says Mr. Robb will once again be called before the grand jury in light of McCloud's testimony. State Democrats, who have charged that the investigation is politically motivated, are wondering whether perjury and other charges against Mr. Robb will follow.
Mr. Robb's initial appearance before the grand jury is believed to be the first time in more than a decade that a senator has testified before such a federal panel. In 1981, Sen. Harrison A. Williams, a New Jersey Democrat, was convicted in the Abscam political corruption scandal.
Meanwhile, The Daily Progress in Charlottesville reported last week that a 26-year-old woman who allegedly had a "months-long affair" with Mr. Robb while he was governor and she was a teen-ager is cooperating with the grand jury investigation. The newspaper reported that the senator's aides interviewed the woman two years ago in Boston, a trip financed by campaign funds that were later cited as fund-raising costs on federal election reports.
Former Robb aides said she was one of several young women interviewed in 1990 about alleged affairs with Mr. Robb while he was governor. The staffers were trying to keep such allegations out of the press, according to court records.
The senator, who has repeatedly said he was never unfaithful to his wife, Lynda Johnson Robb, found himself last year denying allegations of an affair with Tai Collins, a former Miss Virginia/USA. Mr. Robb admitted that he drank wine and received a massage, but that he and Miss Collins didn't have sex.
The burgeoning scandal "has Greek tragedy elements," said one Capitol Hill aide, "and also Marx Brothers elements."
When the tape came to light last summer through news reports, it brought new intensity to the Wilder-Robb feud. Since the 1970s these two figures with powerful egos and ambitious natures have viewed each other with suspicion.
McCloud's court statement said the Robb staff members hoped to use the Wilder tape to "deflect attention from controversies surrounding Mr. Robb."
"I've never doubted (Sen. Robb) was fully aware of everything that took place in his office," Mr. Wilder said Friday. "The whole sordid affair . . . and the spreading of scurrilous lies, has not been seen since Watergate."
But Robb supporters charge that the grand jury probe is a witch hunt by Republican-appointed prosecutors who are trying to destroy a man who helped rebuild the state's Democratic Party. The grand jury has been sitting for a year and has produced only misdemeanors or lesser charges, they say.
Virginia Democrats also note that U.S. Attorney Richard Cullen, who oversees the office heading the investigation, was an aide to former Virginia Sen. Paul S. Trible, a Republican who decided not to seek re-election in 1988.
Last year, Mr. Cullen's predecessor in the U.S. attorney's office, Henry Hudson, recused himself from the tape investigation because of repeated clashes with Mr. Robb. He also decided against seeking another four-year term as U.S. attorney because he learned that Mr. Robb would block his confirmation.
"There's a lot of politics. . . . They have pursued this case to the bitter end," said Kenneth V. Geroe, a Virginia Beach Democratic Party leader and a former assistant commonwealth's attorney.
The federal authorities "were trying to nail as many people connected with the Democratic Party as they could get," said Mr. Geroe, who was questioned by the FBI about the tape. "There's been a lot of fishing going on," he said, adding that leaks have flowed to the press.
The senator also attacked the leaks, saying "there has been an attempt to indict, try and convict me in the media by rumor and innuendo fueled by unlawful leaks."
Over the past year, Mr. Robb has worked hard to rebuild his tarnished image.
Several weeks ago, when two dozen top Virginia Democrats got together for a meeting of the party's steering committee, the consensus was that Mr. Robb probably could still be re-elected. But that was before the grand jury turned its sights on the junior senator from Virginia.
"He's dead," said a state Democratic official. "I think most people are just disappointed. The people who worked the hardest for Chuck feel the most let down. It's a sad, sad situation."