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From mistakes, Clinton has learned, adjusted

She stresses her experience, especially as first lady, as her chief qualification to be president. Her career includes both accomplishments and missteps.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 16, 2008

Senator to senator: Pat Roberts (R) chatted with Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) in advance of a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in 2004. With them were fellow members John McCain (R), at right, and Joseph Lieberman.

Ron Edmonds/AP/File

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Sen. Lindsey Graham, a conservative Republican from South Carolina and longtime backer of John McCain, has called Hillary Rodham Clinton "a smart, prepared, serious senator" with an ability to "build unusual political alliances on a variety of issues."

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Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R) of Pennsylvania, another conservative who collaborated with Senator Clinton on legislation, calls her "much more of a uniter" in the Senate than her rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.

Senator McCain himself, the presumptive GOP nominee, gets along famously with Clinton. Clinton's husband, the former president, likes to joke that if they're the nominees, the campaign would be so civilized "they'd put the voters to sleep."

Whether Clinton will go head to head against McCain in November remains an open question, as she seeks to overtake Senator Obama, the Democratic frontrunner. But she and her surrogates persist in touting her experience as her top qualification for the presidency.

The kind words of current and former GOP Senate colleagues may not do her much good, though, in a primary contest where "change" has trumped "experience." The campaign doesn't much play up her success in becoming "one of the boys" in the world's most exclusive club. "Too much inside baseball," says a campaign strategist. The irony for Clinton is that, of the three major-party candidates left in the race, voters see her as most divisive and Obama as most able to unite the country.

Clinton's image as "polarizing" goes back to her days as first lady of Arkansas, when she worked as a partner at the Rose Law Firm and raised eyebrows by keeping her maiden name. Arkansans – and the American public, in general, she would learn – were accustomed to more traditional first ladies who tended to focus on noncontroversial causes and hostessing duties.

But the reality is more complicated. Interviews with people who have worked with Clinton throughout her career – from her days as chairman of the board of the Children's Defense Fund to her two terms as first lady of the United States to her seven-plus years in the Senate – reveal a woman who has evolved from an advocate to a politician, learned from her mistakes, and had experiences unlike any other presidential candidate in US history.

Central to Clinton's argument that she should be the next president is her experience as first lady of the United States, a role that the Clintons treated as a top advisory position – equal, especially early on, to the vice president.