First Lady Brings Light - And Heat - to Campaign

The four-masted schooner glides up to the pier, its most famous occupant waving both hands high above her head, first to the boatload of Clinton-Gore supporters behind her, then to the cheering crowd awaiting her on land.

This is Hillary Rodham Clinton's moment, the first of many during convention week, when the president's wife has a fresh chance in the national spotlight - and in the warmth of her native Chicago - to soften the edges of her image.

Among America's first ladies, Mrs. Clinton is one who sought to redefine the office. She offers a sharp contrast to the behind-the-scenes influence wielded by former first ladies - and the public nature of her involvement in policymaking has engendered admiration as well as animosity.

For her efforts, she has earned the dubious distinction of being the least popular first lady in the history of modern polling. The latest Gallup survey shows 48 percent of voters see her unfavorably, compared with 47 percent who view her favorably. Even if this point is likely to have little bearing on her husband's reelection bid, her role during the convention and the campaign remains a point of interest.

Tonight, when Mrs. Clinton speaks before the Democratic National Convention, she will face the inevitable comparisons to Elizabeth Dole's boffo Oprah-style performance at the Republican convention two weeks ago. But campaign aides and political analysts play down the Hillary vs. Liddy angle, suggesting instead that Mrs. Clinton's task is to be herself and not be defensive.

"She will speak at the podium," asserted Democratic Party co-chair Don Fowler at a Monitor breakfast here, putting to rest speculation that Mrs. Clinton may venture onto the convention floor to speak as Mrs. Dole did in San Diego.

But beyond the easy comparisons, Mrs. Clinton must maintain an upbeat demeanor and keep her frustrations to herself during the campaign. "She's been chased by Republicans and has lost it; she reacts," says James Rosebush, ex-chief of staff to former first lady Nancy Reagan. "Mrs. Clinton should show her best attributes," he continues, noting her intelligence and her own skill as a speaker. "She has almost as important a job to do in her speech as Bob Dole did with his. Dole had to face down a lot of images of himself."

Mrs. Clinton's image problems started before she took up residence in the White House, when candidate Clinton promised two presidents for the price of one. (Bob Dole, it should be noted, is on the record making the same proud comment during one of his previous presidential campaigns, before such a notion became heresy.) Mrs. Clinton's role at the center of a series of scandals and flaps - from Whitewater to the White House travel office - in addition to her ill-fated effort to reform the nation's health-care system have made her a lightning rod of criticism.

Some administration officials suggest that her lightning-rod status serves a useful purpose in deflecting criticism from her husband, but that may be so much spin in a system where the first law of first-ladydom is to do no harm.

Mr. Rosebush, a Republican who now works as a business consultant, says Mrs. Clinton has handled herself correctly in recent months. She was seen comforting the families of the TWA Flight 800 crash. She attended the Olympics. She took her daughter, Chelsea, to look at colleges, an activity many parents of teenagers can relate to.

Chelsea's emergence as a poised young lady, now appearing more frequently in public venues and waving confidently to crowds, is also bound to reflect positively on both her parents. In the Hillary-Elizabeth comparison game, Chelsea's presence highlights the fact that Mrs. Dole never had her own children, focusing instead on her career.

In Chicago, Mrs. Clinton will keep her role as "ambassador to the Democratic base," that is, to liberals, as an administration official once described her. She'll address women's groups and speak about children.

But she faces a new twist: Her husband's convention-eve decision to sign the Republicans' welfare reform bill, which ends the 60-year-old guarantee of federal aid to the poor, is highly unpopular with liberals - and Mrs. Clinton can hardly disavow her husband's move.

Not that she would necessarily like to do that. While she is seen as more liberal than her husband, she is also reputed to have just as shrewd political instincts. It was she, for example, who reportedly plucked campaign strategist James Carville and put him in a lead spot in Clinton's campaign four years ago. Mrs. Clinton is also said to have backed her husband's decision to turn to Republican political guru Dick Morris to resurrect the Clinton presidency.

Mrs. Clinton may also have learned the art of staying off the defensive. She withstood some sharp cuts at the Republican convention, but has left it to party officials to come to her defense. In San Diego, Senator Dole belittled Mrs. Clinton's book on children, suggesting that she believes governments rather than families should raise children.

At a Monitor breakfast here this week, the other Democratic Party co-chair, Sen. Christopher Dodd, retorted: "Going after Mrs. Clinton's book - I mean, I have a lot of respect and affection for Bob Dole, but at some point he's got to stop making comments about movies he hasn't seen and books he hasn't read."

Whatever the outcome in November, one thing is certain. Come January, the first lady will be an accomplished professional, paving the way for future presidential wives to have high-profile careers of their own.

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