JUST when he thought his Christmas present had arrived in the shape of his best opinion poll showing for months, President Bill Clinton discovered Santa Claus had several other little gifts up his sleeve. His White House aides were not in the holiday spirit, however. A staffer, asked about one of the two scandals and two embarrassing foul-ups that had fallen like angel dust over Hillary's Christmas decorations, snapped: ''I can only deal with one nightmare at a time.'' When the Washington Post asked the same official whether any other scandals were brewing, he replied: ''Not that I'm aware of, but it's only six o'clock.'' It has truly been Bill Clinton's nightmare before Christmas: two of his former Arkansas state troopers claim they set up a string of extra-marital liaisons for him back in the then Governor's Little Rock days; a long-brewing story about the Clintons' dabblings with a failed Savings and Loans banker finally bubbles to the surface; the new Defence Secretary admits he made similar errors of judgment over an immigrant domestic helper that scuttled the nominations of two attorneys-generals; and the son of the Surgeon General - guardian of the nation's health - finds himself facing a drug-dealing rap. The centrepiece on this week's controversies is the allegations of sexual athletics in the Governor's mansion. Perhaps more sinister, and something that will undoubtedly outlast the sex scandal, is the Arkansas Savings and Loan story. The sex scandal is largely based on the allegations of two men, Larry Patterson and Roger Perry, state troopers who used to help guard Governor Clinton in his Little Rock mansion and who claim they were asked by Mr Clinton to help smuggle in a string of women for sex - activities that supposedly continued after the presidential election. Among the fruity claims, as relayed by journalist David Brock in the conservative American Spectator magazine, is one that the troopers witnessed the Governor engaged in acts of intercourse and oral sex, including in a car parked in the driveway. They say they drove Mr Clinton to various rendezvous, guarded his privacy in hotel rooms, and even witnessed a tryst in a car outside his daughter Chelsea's school. Mr Clinton told the troopers their job was to ferry him to such encounters, to provide him with various women's numbers, and to make sure his wife Hillary did not know what was going on, they said. TWO other troopers joined in the allegations but refused to be named. Some of the women alleged to be involved with Mr Clinton either denied the stories or refused to comment. The American Spectator also alleges that Mr Clinton, hearing that the two men were considering writing a book about their experiences, offered a federal job to another Arkansas trooper in return for his help in suppressing the scandal. Thus, the normally staid intellectual monthly is able to defend itself against the inevitable claims that it is wallowing in the same gutter as the tabloid press. Author David Brock has already appeared on television saying his article raised matters of, yes, public interest. It is not the unzipping of the President's fly which matters, he said, but his misuse of public officials and then his bid to block the revelations. The magazine's agenda - and Mr Brock's - seem far from impartial, however. The author, a former leader-writer for the right-wing Washington Times, has made his name on the even more right-of-centre Spectator, as well as a scathing demolition job in a book on Anita Hill, who accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Adding a very large pinch of salt to the tale is the fact that Perry and Patterson both hope to make money from a book of their recollections, are said to have harboured a grudge at not being promoted to security jobs in Washington and are being represented by an anti-Clinton lawyer, Cliff Jackson, the source of other allegations about him during last year's campaign. Mr Clinton has not said anything about the story since it broke on Sunday, but his public relations machine has gone into top gear. Aide Bruce Lindsey dismissed the allegations as scurrilous but then issued a statement admitting that Mr Clinton had called various troopers he knew from his Arkansas days - not to offer any inducements for them to block the stories - but merely to find out what was happening and express disbelief. Yesterday, there was the great counter-attack tactic that helped pull the press off the Gennifer Flowers scandal during last year's campaign. That tactic was the First Lady, who stood by her man last year on TV and who did it again this time. In an interview with Associated Press, Mrs Clinton gave a tear-jerking portrayal of a First Family wronged. Noting how her dashing red dress matched the ribbons on the Christmas tree behind her, the reporter quoted her as saying: ''For me, it's pretty sad that we're still subjected to these kind of attacks for political and financial gain from people, and thatit is sad that - especially here in the Christmas season - people for their own purposes would be attacking my family.'' The message was clear: her husband was being attacked by opponents because, he was riding high in the opinion polls and money was being offered for a kiss-and-tell tale. The media has been ambivalent so far. The greatest mystery is the role of the Los Angeles Times which had been following the story at least as long as Mr Brock, had obtained affidavits from the troopers and had last week warned the White House that it was about to publish. However, nothing has appeared. The tabloid press has predictably followed the story up (''Bill's New Sexgate'', ran the New York Post headline), but the serious press and television have been sheepish. The Wall Street Journal says it won't touch it, and The New York Times, decided that its readers were due no more than seven paragraphs of agency copy. Meanwhile, The Washington Times has been beavering away for several weeks at the Clintons' former links with James McDougal, owner of the collapsed Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan company and a one-time partner with the Clintons in another failed venture, a property development firm called Whitewater. But when The New York Times eventually ran a story last week revealing that Mr McDougal donated US$50,000 to Mr Clinton's campaign funds in 1985, the scandal began to take off. Questions started to be asked about why Mr Clinton's state authorities failed to take action against dubious activities inside the Madison S and L until it was too late - when it went bust and cost tax payers millions of dollars. AFTER further revelations, the White House admitted that on the evening of the suicide of Mr Clinton's deputy legal counsel Vince Foster last August, officials entered Foster's office and removed files on Whitewater. At the time presidential spokesman Mark Gearan said that all that was being sought in the office was Foster's suicide note. Foster and Hillary Clinton were partners of the Arkansas legal firm Rose Law, which was involved in both Whitewater and Madison. The irony of the present Christmas nightmare is that the rows have exploded just as the President was beginning to win public confidence. Such is the seriousness of the sexual allegations that, in another country, a head of state might considering suing. But the US system, where the burden of proving malice on behalf of the publisher makes it much harder to win libel cases, does not lend itself to wounded politicians. Public figures have to learn to take it, says popular wisdom; and that is what Mr Clinton, armed with a telegenic wife and a formidable White House propaganda machine, will no doubt have to do.