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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Many Americans admired her fortitude, her dignity, her sustaining religious faith, and her capacity for forgiveness. But some remain troubled that Hillary Clinton didn't leave Bill, and the critics chalk it up to her desire to avoid a messy divorce that might damage her political ambitions. Republican pollster Ed Goeas says many GOP women are particularly cynical. "They feel she was willing to do anything for political gain, that she did it not for her marriage but her for political future," Goeas says.

Setting her own pace. By her final year as first lady, she seemed a much different kind of leader. She took as her role model Eleanor Roosevelt, who pursued a series of scaled-back projects such as humanitarian aid around the world after being criticized for trying to push her husband's policies in a more liberal direction early in Franklin Roosevelt's presidency. For Clinton, the healthcare failure and the impeachment battle caused her to limit her own goals. One likely motivation was her desire to run for the Senate from New York in 2000, which she concluded would mean softening her image and showing a more pragmatic side. Another motivation was that she had probably reached the limit of her ability to shape policy because of her negative image. Instead of tilting at windmills, she took on smaller projects, frequently to improve the lives of children, such as a $24 billion initiative to expand children's health insurance, improve foster care, and increase vaccinations.

And she realized that she could still be a powerful advocate for women's rights and children's welfare around the world, taking her message to countries including China, Russia, Ireland, Panama, and Ukraine. She emerged as an international celebrity.

Today, the sense of limits is evident in her campaign. She finally knows when to terminate a controversy and cut her losses, even when she believes she did nothing wrong. For example, she moved quickly to end a recent furor over former Democratic fundraiser Norman Hsu, who pleaded no contest in 1992 to grand theft and is facing fraud and other charges. After the story broke of the campaign's indirect connections to Hsu, Clinton aides announced they would return more than $850,000 in contributions that Hsu had channeled to her from friends and business associates. "Ten years ago," says a former senior official in her husband's West Wing, "she would never have given ground because she believed it's wrong to give ground. Now she's not that way."

But some believe Clinton still has some convincing to do. "Based on her early political career and service as first lady, many Americans see her primarily as a partisan and well to the left of husband Bill on major issues," says Frank Donatelli, former political director for President Ronald Reagan. "Her No. 1 goal for her years in the Senate and her presidential campaign has been to show that she can move beyond liberal rhetoric and make common cause with a broader cross section of America. Time will tell if she will be successful."

The path she set at the end of her era as first lady—searching for what she now calls "common ground"—is today her chosen road to the White House. "She has realized she can't just rely on her husband," says a friend. "That didn't work anymore as first lady, and it doesn't work now. She needed her own life." As the front-running Democratic presidential candidate, it's clear that she has found it.