By now, Janet Reno ought to be used to the routine. After all, she has authorized the appointment of special prosecutors a half-dozen times during President Clinton's tenure at the White House. Four of those investigations are still going. So why does she seem to be choking on her words when the subject involves campaign fund raising?

Reno has decided to open a second 90-day investigation into Vice President Al Gore's 45 telephone calls from his office in 1995 and 1996. Last December, she ended a similar three-month investigation by concluding there was no need for a special prosecutor. The only difference now - other than the fact she has been pressured by the FBI director, the former Justice Department lead prosecutor and Congress - seems to be a document that indicates Gore knew he was raising direct campaign contributions from federal property, which is illegal.That may be enough to change Reno's mind, but she still seems unable to understand that she is focusing on one tree in the midst of a forest of corruption.

Why, for example, does she steadfastly refuse to look into allegations the president rented the Lincoln bedroom in exchange for large donations or that other White House offices and equipment were used to generate direct donations to the president's re-election campaign? Why won't she examine the most disturbing allegation of all, that foreign interests, most notably the Chinese government, tried to influence the outcome of the election? The FBI warned the Clinton administration in 1996 that the Chinese would try to contribute to candidates.

Instead, Reno has narrowed the focus to Gore's telephone calls. That may yet prove to be an effective place to point the flashlight, particularly if, as the newly found document suggests, it can be shown Gore lied about his involvement. And, as Kenneth Starr has shown, once a prosecutor is appointed, he or she could seek approval to expand the investigation if the facts warrant.

But Reno has done little to boost her own reputation as a dispassionate legal officer by continuing to play what look like political games.