LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- In the closing weeks of the 1992 presidential campaign, there were widespread rumors here that Arkansas state troopers assigned to Gov. Bill Clinton's security detail would be the source of a fresh story of his sexual escapades that might knock his candidacy off its feet.
When the story finally materialized last week, nearly a year into Mr. Clinton's presidency, it was the White House that was thrown off balance.
Mr. Clinton has battled allegations of sexual indiscretions for much of his political career. At one point last year, he implicitly acknowledged on national television that he had carried on affairs and declared that the marriage in which he had caused "pain" was now strong.
The revival of suggestions that Mr. Clinton was a randy governor seemed to offer little new other than some titillating details, and it failed to trigger a public outcry against him. The story, at this point, has dissolved into a mystery, a made-for-tabloid shower of sleaze that is pure Arkansas baroque. There is a welter of angry charges and countercharges, and there are no easy answers.
But questions linger about the central figures in the case, a pair of state troopers who publicly accused Mr. Clinton of using them to procure women for him and who have had their motives and credibility challenged. And questions also linger about their handler, Little Rock lawyer Cliff Jackson, who has been bent on a mission to destroy Mr. Clinton for nearly three years.
Mr. Jackson was once Mr. Clinton's friend. A fellow Arkansan and a Fulbright scholar, he attended Oxford University at the same time Mr. Clinton was a Rhodes scholar. Mr. Jackson, who had connections to Republicans back home who controlled the state Selective Service offices, said the friendship withered when he felt he was used by Mr. Clinton to avoid the draft.
He was annoyed when Mr. Clinton reneged on an agreement to enroll in an ROTC program at the University of Arkansas Law School after escaping one round of the draft in 1969. "I can't help but suspect that his 'friendship' with me is Machiavellian," Mr. Jackson wrote in a letter to a friend the same year.
Shortly before Mr. Clinton became a candidate for president in 1991, Mr. Jackson helped found a group known by the acronym ARIAS -- Alliance for the Rebirth of an American Spirit.
"It's a bunch of Republican rich folk that want to do Bill Clinton harm," said David Matthews, a former Arkansas legislator who is a close friend of the president.
According to Federal Election Commission records, ARIAS raised and spent most of it in a campaign of radio and newspaper ads against Mr. Clinton during the New Hampshire primary. A Democratic Party official identified ARIAS' chief benefactor as James Keenan, an Arkansas industrialist who was also a heavy contributor to President Bush.
Mr. Jackson said the Teamsters union was actually the largest single donor to his cause.
Although there is no indication that Mr. Jackson was involved in the leaks that nearly brought Mr. Clinton down in New Hampshire over the draft issues, he was the source for a story that caused Mr. Clinton problems during the New York primary. Mr. Jackson revealed that Mr. Clinton had actually received a draft notice in 1969 -- a fact the candidate had not mentioned in previous discussions of the draft.
"Cliff Jackson is like a bad penny," said Bruce Lindsey, who handles personnel matters in the Clinton White House. There are plots to sabotage Mr. Clinton "whenever we are doing well," said Mr. Lindsey, a Little Rock lawyer before he went to Washington. "When we were doing well in New Hampshire, this stuff came up. And now, when we're having a good year, they decide to use it again."
Ernie Dumas, a former reporter and editor with the Arkansas Gazette, a newspaper that went out of business in 1991, recalled that Mr. Jackson telephoned him with partisan tips aimed at Mr. Clinton during the 1980s. "Cliff knew reporters, and he talked to me frequently. But I didn't detect the visceral hatred that has since come out. He didn't seem as obsessed by Clinton then as he does now."
Mr. Clinton's friends say they believe Mr. Jackson's animosity is the product of envy -- while Mr. Clinton was emerging as a national leader, Mr. Jackson was merely a successful Little Rock trial lawyer, noted for winning a $17.5 million judgment against Texaco in a sex discrimination lawsuit.
The loquacious Mr. Jackson has generally operated openly against Mr. Clinton. In an interview on Friday, he said he had made "a mistake" last year when he contacted a private investigator in Little Rock who was collecting incriminating information on Mr. Clinton. Mr.
Jackson reported that a friend had told him of a photograph of Mr. Clinton in bed with several women.
"It was a set-up," Mr. Jackson said. The detective taped his phone call and leaked the message to the National Enquirer, a tabloid that subsequently sought to buy the photo from Mr. Jackson. "It turned out that the photo didn't exist," Mr. Jackson said.
Until the latest controversy, it was his only attempt to harm Mr. Clinton with charges of sexual misconduct.
Mr. Jackson said that Sheffield Nelson, Mr. Clinton's Republican opponent in the 1990 governor's race, was the one who "pushed the woman thing" against Mr. Clinton last year. Mr. Jackson is often described by Mr. Clinton's friends as a "front" for Mr. Nelson, one of the leaders of the Arkansas Republican Party, but Mr. Jackson denied that he was close to Mr. Nelson.
For the past week, Mr. Jackson has been orchestrating the activities of the two troopers, Roger Perry and Larry Patterson, and late last week he brought them to a Little Rock hotel room for a long interview.
Mr. Jackson said he first gave the story to the Los Angeles Times and the American Spectator, a conservative magazine, in August. The stories broke, like a one-two punch, a week ago.
Mr. Patterson said that so far the troopers had made "not one red cent" from their accusations.