Can the book open a new chapter for Hillary Clinton?

The scrum outside Hillary Rodham Clinton's office grew rapidly one day last week, as word spread that the former first lady was going to talk about leaks from her memoir, held closely under wraps for release in bookstores Monday.

Random tourists and school groups joined journalists in the crowd.

"She's her own person," says Sherie Stewart, a government worker from Portland, Ore., who says Ms. Clinton has been a very important model in her life. "She got sidetracked for awhile, maybe hijacked, by President Clinton's misfortunes, and now she's going places," she said, jostling for a better view.

Ms. Stewart says, when asked, that she can't recall anything specific Hillary Clinton has said or accomplished, but does note her dignity during the scandals around her husband's impeachment. "She tried to stand up for him when she thought he was telling the truth, and a lot of us saw that as a strength."

This visitor's fascination represents one side of public opinion about one of the most polarizing figures in American public life.

The New York senator's new book, "Living History," appears a certain bestseller. But even as it offsets millions of dollars of legal fees from her White House years, perhaps the key question for Hillary Clinton is whether it will help warm up her image as someone who is more than just an intelligent and hard-driving power seeker.

She is seen by many as possible presidential material, and she has won plaudits as an industrioius first-term senator. But when she finally appears at her door, the questions revive echoes of an earlier, and tawdry, era:

"Have you forgiven Bill? Have you forgiven Monica?" calls out a reporter.

"I'm going to let people read the book," she says to this and similar inquiries. "The book is about my whole life, not a few hours or a few days."

In places like Olsson's bookstore in Arlington, Va., or Barnes and Noble at the Lincoln Triangle in New York City, sales of her resolutely embargoed memoir began at 12:01 a.m. this morning - a status usually reserved for hot albums or a new Harry Potter novel.

It's a high-stakes moment for both publishing and the poll-driven world of politics. Industry insiders wonder the book will merit publisher Simon & Schuster's $8 million advance - a record surpassed only by the Pope John Paul II and President Clinton, whose memoirs are expected next year. Political memoirs have not done well of late.

At the same time, political handicappers are watching to see whether this book will help the former first lady overcome some of the strongest "unfavorables" in politics and promote a presidential run in 2008.

From her early days in public life as the wife of the Arkansas attorney general and then governor, Hillary Clinton has aroused strong feelings on both sides of the political spectrum. Her use of her maiden name, Rodham, as first lady of Arkansas riled traditionalists and contributed to her husband's defeat after a first term as governor. So did her conspicuous policy role early in the Clinton administration on issues such as health care.

"She starts out with exactly 33 percent who consistently say they are very unfavorable.... It's a deficit much higher than most politicians ever have to deal with," says pollster John Zogby of Zogby International. According to his latest poll, 29 percent have a very favorable opinion of her, 26 percent somewhat favorable, 9 percent somewhat unfavorable, and 33 percent very unfavorable.

THE high point in her approval ratings came in February 1999, as President Clinton was being impeached. At 80 percent, it's the highest job approval rating ever registered for a first lady, says Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll, based in Princeton, N.J. "During the impeachment, for a brief period of time, she was seen as a suffering spouse. Then went back into being viewed as political."

A powerful advocate for New York after 9/11, she was shouted down by firefighters at the concert for New York organized by Paul McCartney after the terrorists attacks. "They booed her for cultural reasons, not policy," says John White, a political scientist at the Catholic University of America in Washington and author of "The Values Divide."

"She represents one side of the values divide. If she wants to become president, she has to change attitudes about herself," he says. "This book is an important step in making sure that happens."

As New York's junior senator, she generally avoids cameras and the roving gaggles of reporters that stake out Senate votes. She has quietly built relationships across the aisle on issues such as child care and aid to states.

She is the new head of the Senate Democratic Steering committee, where she will coordinate the policy message in the runup to 2004 elections. She is also a key player in the launch of a new Democratic think tank, the American Majority Institute, which aims to give a boost to liberal ideas in Washington. On Friday, staff were unpacking boxes in downtown offices just vacated and once shared with by Emily's List, a leading fundraising group for women candidates.

As nine Democrats struggle for a little daylight in the 2004 race for president, Hillary Clinton - who is not in the race but still outpolls them all - is casting a long shadow. And it's not going unnoticed in the Senate.

Stopped by reporters on his way into the Senate for a vote last week, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona is asked: "What do you think about Senator Clinton's book?" He looks amused, barely. "I never comment on personal affairs," he says.

"Anyone want to talk about my book?" asks Sen. Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana. He doesn't bother to wait around for a response.

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