A Learning Experience

Hillary Clinton's taking a different tack in an attempt to return to the White House.

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Hillary Clinton mingles with crowds at Quantico Marine Base.

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Hillary Clinton showed a flash of humor at last week's Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire. When she expressed opposition to torture of suspected terrorists, even Osama bin Laden, NBC moderator Tim Russert pointed out that her husband, Bill Clinton, appeared to differ with her on that score. Senator Clinton paused ever so briefly and said, "Well, he's not standing here right now." After Russert asked if they had a real schism on the issue, she broke into a big grin and added, "Well, I'll talk to him later." The Dartmouth College audience cheered.

So did her advisers. It was just the kind of light moment that the folks in Hillaryland want to see more of as she tries to erase the hard edges of her past and appeal to a broader range of voters. Senator Clinton argues that even critics are in the process of giving her a fresh look and will eventually move beyond the stereotypes. "I believe the American people give you a fair shake if you are out there talking about what you believe, what you want to do, and what you think is important," she told U.S. News last week.

But as she pursues the presidency, it turns out Clinton is in many ways still trapped in the caricature that emerged during her eight years as first lady—the formative period of her public life. Millions of Americans concluded that she was a harridan, a left-wing zealot, and a cuckolded wife who remained with a straying husband to enhance her political ambitions. Clinton says that all those perceptions are erroneous and that Americans will come to agree as they pay closer attention to her as a presidential candidate. She also argues that she has changed in some crucial ways over the years, at least in terms of her governing philosophy and the way she deals with the power centers in Washington.

Perhaps her most important discovery as first lady was a sense of limits. Asked to describe her main lessons, she laughs and says, "Maybe first and foremost, understanding what the potential opportunities for a president would be and the limits of presidential power." She adds: "I think it's key to being able to come forward with an agenda and understand the rhythms of this city as to how to move forward.... I really had a developing understanding of, you know, what the system can deliver, how much, when, and the importance of relationships." She adds: "It's very important to know how to find common ground and how to stand your ground."

Friends, advisers, and associates say she still wants to perform good works and succeed. But she is no longer filled with the moralistic hubris and the know-it-all self-assurance that led her to push too hard, disdain compromise, and alienate so many people. "She does not touch a hot stove a second time—I can't see her overreaching," says a senior Clinton aide. "She saw what happened to her husband and herself. She will have lofty ambitions, but she will pursue them with balance."

This characterization may come as a surprise to critics, who say her "sense of limits" spiel is a sham. They contend Clinton is still an inveterate big-government meddler who always wants to steamroll the opposition. And there are still plenty of Americans who take that view. Facebook's online networking website Stop Hillary Clinton: (One Million Strong Against Hillary), for example, reports more than 418,000 members already.

But the central fact of the Democratic presidential race is that, so far, Clinton's message appears to be working. The latest polls show her support at near 50 percent among Democrats nationally, far ahead of any rival. And she is doing better than expected in the early caucus and primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, raising the prospect that she could lock up the nomination right out of the gate. "When people see the Hillary Clinton of 2007, they see how ready she is to be president, and the old images are shattered," says Mark Penn, chief strategist for her presidential campaign. To grasp how she got to such a commanding position in the race, and to understand her current attitudes about governing, one needs to go back to her turbulent eight years at Bill Clinton's side from 1993 to 2001.