Former senator Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.) yesterday cleared the way for a more active presidential bid by dropping a $250 million libel suit against the McClatchy Newspapers group. In return, the newspaper chain issued a statement that the long, pretrial discovery process had failed to show that illegal "skimming" occurred at a casino owned by Laxalt.

"This is the day I've been waiting for since the fall of 1983," Laxalt declared at a news conference. "The cloud has been removed." Laxalt will get no money, and a special panel of three retired judges will decide whether McClatchy should pay any part of his substantial legal costs.

C.K. McClatchy, president and editor of the chain of Bee newspapers published in Sacramento, Modesto and Fresno, Calif., sharply disputed Laxalt's description of the settlement.

"We have not retracted, we have not apologized and we have not paid any damages," McClatchy told a San Francisco news conference. "Regardless of what the senator may say to further his efforts in his campaign, we are not backing away from anything we said in the news story."

The paper did, however, agree to the following summary of the results of pretrial testimony and document searches:

"Extensive discovery taken in this libel action has not shown that there was a skim at the Ormsby House {formerly Laxalt's casino}, or that Senator Laxalt, or any other person acting in his behalf, granted anyone the right to skim the casino in exchange for illegal financing. Nor has extensive discovery taken in this libel action produced any evidence that Senator Laxalt acted to hinder or defeat any government investigation."

Laxalt said the dismissal of the suit leaves him free to campaign more vigorously for the Republican presidential nomination since the trial had been expected to run through much of this summer. Laxalt has said he will decide whether to run for president by Oct. 1, and that one basic requirement is that he have "$2 million in the bank" by that date.

Although the Nov. 1, 1983, McClatchy story by reporter Denny Walsh never said that there had been an illegal skim at the Ormsby House casino, a followup article by Sacramento Bee ombudsman Art Nauman quoted Bee executive editor Frank McCulloch to that effect. McCulloch told Nauman: "I do know (a), that the skimming took place, and (b), that he {Laxalt} was the owner of the establishment during that time."

The Walsh story filled 12 feet of newspaper columns and appeared on the front page of the three Bee newspapers. McClatchy said even in light of the additional information gathered since and the settlement, he still feels the prominence and space given the story were appropriate. A complex, long story can always "be done better," McClatchy acknowledged, but he added: "There is nothing important in the story we would have done differently."

McClatchy called "absolutely untrue" Laxalt's statement that the settlement was a retraction. He called Walsh "an outstanding reporter" and said he hoped now "Denny could spend a little more time reporting and a little less time talking to lawyers."

In earlier discussions of a possible settlement, McClatchy said, Laxalt had demanded that the paper state "there was no credible evidence" of a skim at the casino, but the paper refused to do so.

Today's settlement conspicuously failed to address Walsh's lengthy reporting on alleged personal ties between Laxalt and reputed organized-crime figures. Like some other Nevada politicians, Laxalt has accepted political contributions from individuals tied by some law enforcement officials to organized crime.

Walsh's story discussed alleged organized-crime involvement in the original financing of the Laxalt hotel-casino in Carson City and the associations of at least one executive who had worked at the hotel. Laxalt attorneys said their investigations showed that Walsh had no credible source for any suggestion that mob figures helped fund the venture or that the one-time casino executive, Bernard Nemerov, carried out illegal activities there.

McClatchy said the issue of Laxalt's ties to people with mob connections was avoided in the settlement because "there were no phrases that would satisfy Mr. Laxalt that we could agree to . . . in that area of the story. I would say that area of the story was as solid as any other part of the story."