For Both Gore and GOP, a Guilty Verdict to Watch

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Maria Hsia sat stoically as a Washington jury convicted her on five counts of illegal fund-raising Thursday; it's not hard to imagine Al Gore cringing at the news of the verdict. With the economy in good shape, the Cold War a distant memory and impeachment hearings a not-so-distant one, candidate character consistently ranks near the top of voter opinion polls in this year's presidential race. And Gore's connection to the Clinton-Gore Asian fund-raising muddle is one of his most prominent pressure points. While prosecutors argued that Hsia, the California immigration consultant who arranged Gore's infamous Buddhist temple fund-raiser, engaged in her illegal activities unbeknownst to the veep or the Democratic party, GOP leadership wasted no time in using the verdict to argue for increased scrutiny of the Democrats' all-but-anointed presidential candidate.

"It's time to get beyond the small fry," said Republican National Chairman Jim Nicholson in a statement that immediately followed the verdict "and take on the major players like Al Gore." A videotape of Gore's appearance at the Buddhist temple, which has heretofore been embargoed by prosecutors in the Hsia case, is certain to become perennial GOP fodder as the presidential race turns from intra-party rivalry to a battle of the giants.

But just how large a character issue the Hsia conviction will become may depend on the outcome of the Republican race. "If the nominee is John McCain, it's one scenario," notes TIME political correspondent Karen Tumulty. "McCain's been able to inspire voters on the campaign finance issue. But if it's George W. Bush, it's another story. While Bush hasn't done anything we know about that approaches illegality in fund-raising, the sheer volume of money he's raised hurts his credibility as a campaign finance reformer." McCain previewed how he'd handle Gore's record in Thursday night's GOP debate when he attacked Bush for allowing fund-raisers to stay in the Texas governor's mansion — a move he likened to the notorious transgressions of Clinton/Gore: the stays in the Lincoln Bedroom and Gore's fund-raising over White House phones.