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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.

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Clinton's résumé as an executive is thinner. The travails of her presidential campaign, the largest enterprise she's ever headed, do not bode well. By many accounts, her team has not worked well together, and after months of internal strife, a conflict of interest with an outside client forced Mark Penn out of his perch as chief strategist (though he remains a pollster for the campaign). Her campaign's finances have also not been well managed, forcing her to loan herself $5 million.

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Even so, past colleagues speak well of her as a leader.

"She had an excellent leadership style," says Winifred Green, a board member of CDF during Clinton's years as chairman, 196-92. "That is, she would let people talk and say what was on their mind. And I would describe her leadership style as consensus-building."

Many of her old White House colleagues also praise her for her professionalism, particularly in comparison with her husband.

"She certainly was always in my mind much more disciplined than he was in terms of organization and always had a very efficient staff operation," says former Chief of Staff Panetta. "She was able to make decisions a lot more cleanly than even the president in the sense that once she made a decision, she stuck to it. When he made a decision, he continued to ponder it."

Clinton's style as a senator can be seen as an outgrowth of her time as first lady. "She learned in the White House years something about politics as a process that has to involve people and engage them," says Mr. Galston, the former White House domestic-policy adviser. "It's something you do with people, not to people."

Her joint ventures with Republicans seem to give her particular pride – and not just any Republicans, but some of the most high-profile conservatives imaginable, many of whom worked hard to have her husband thrown out of office during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In 2005, she found common cause with then-House majority leader Tom DeLay on improving the foster-care system. She and former House Speaker Gingrich have appeared together to promote healthcare legislation. With Senator Graham, a one-time House impeachment manager, the issue was improving healthcare benefits for veterans.

Of course, anyone seeking publicity for his or her cause knows that working with Clinton guarantees TV cameras. And her bipartisan efforts have tended to be on smaller issues. Certainly, she can't compete with McCain on his bipartisan work on such major issues as campaign finance and immigration. (McCain was also a member of the Gang of 14, which successfully forged a compromise in 2005 on federal judicial nominations. Clinton did not join the group.)

But for Clinton, appearing relaxed and jovial with Republicans may mitigate some of the intensely partisan views of her. And there's no doubt she knows how to mix it up with the guys.

Then-Senator Santorum recalls walking by Clinton one day in 2005 on Capitol Hill, surrounded by a gaggle of reporters. He had just published his book, "It Takes a Family" – a conservative look at public policy – and, in a way, a reply to an earlier book by Clinton.

"Remember, Rick," she called out, "it takes a village!"

"She was joking – but in every joke there's something," he says. "So was it a little dig? Yeah, it was both. But it was nicer…. I took it in good spirit."