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A Political Career Turns a New Page

Hundreds line up to see Sen. Clinton at her book signing in New York. Talk of her big media splash focuses on a run for White House in 2008.

June 10, 2003|Josh Getlin and Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK -- The crowd began forming the previous night outside a Manhattan bookstore, and by the time Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton showed up Monday to sign copies of her new book, hundreds of people were lined up to see the former first lady.

With Monday's release of "Living History," Clinton is entering a new phase of her political career. Since she was elected to the Senate in 2000, she has built bridges to Republican lawmakers who once voted to impeach her husband -- surprising many observers -- and steered a safe, moderate political path in New York politics.

If Americans periodically lost track of her in the blur of national and international news, that was by design, some said, because the freshman senator was trying to boost credibility with voters and colleagues, rather than make a big media splash.

"She hasn't pressed the celebrity button in a long time, even though she's so well-known," said Lee Miringoff, who runs the New York-based Marist Poll. "But now, with the publication of her book, all of this is about to change very quickly."

Buoyed by a wave of media publicity, some observers say the book is setting the stage for a Clinton presidential run in 2008. Others, however, say it is just another reminder of how easily she can dominate the political spotlight.

The memoir, which went on sale Monday, offers Clinton's version of events that rocked Bill Clinton's presidency, and unlike most political tomes, it is a largely personal account. "This is my story," she said at a news conference Monday. As for a presidential run, Sen. Clinton said: "I have a wonderful job that I'm very proud to have, representing the people of New York. I want to continue doing it to the best of my abilities."

Although Clinton has said she will not be a Democratic presidential candidate in 2004, she has not ruled out a campaign for the White House four years later.

"By writing this now, long before she might consider a run for the presidency, Hillary Clinton is using her celebrity to manage the redefinition of her character," said Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. The goal, he suggested, is to get all the nagging questions -- about Monica S. Lewinsky, Whitewater and the like -- out in the open. That way, Clinton can say these matters have been put to rest, Sheinkopf said.

But it might not be that easy, because many Americans continue to have deep reservations about the former first lady. A Marist poll released last week found that 33% of New York registered voters believe Clinton's primary reason for writing the book was to make money; 28% said it was to set the stage for a presidential run; and 27% said it was to tell her side of the story.

So far, Clinton has received at least $2.85 million from publisher Simon & Schuster as payment of the overall $8-million advance, according to financial disclosure forms filed by her office. Most of the details of her book deal remain private, but traditionally, payments on multimillion-dollar literary contracts are delivered to a writer in several installments.

Clinton and her husband, who received a $10-million deal from Random House to write his memoir, can use these proceeds to pay off an estimated $1.75 million to $6.5 million remaining in legal fees stemming from investigations and controversies involving President Clinton's last few years in office.

Meanwhile, an ABC poll found that 53% hoped she wouldn't run for the presidency. Her favorability ratings were mixed; 48% had a negative view of the former first lady, while 44% expressed positive opinions.

"She remains a polarizing figure," said Republican consultant and talk show host Jay Severin. "And it doesn't matter what her legislative record has been, because it's all about her running for president someday. She tailors everything to that goal."

Even her harshest critics, though, give Clinton credit for working hard during her first years as senator, in Washington, D.C., and New York.

During her 2000 race against then-Rep. Rick Lazio, Clinton was attacked repeatedly as a carpetbagger who knew little about New York state, and many Republican critics predicted that she would be contentious and controversial.

"My expectation of her was that she was going to be a little more of a flamboyant senator," said Michael Franc, vice president for government relations at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation. "Instead, she's conducted herself with a certain amount of restraint and prudence."

One January day, for example, Clinton and Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) walked into the Senate Press Gallery, found perches on the two arms of a leather easy chair, and explained how they had crafted what would become the first law of the 108th Congress. It was an extension of unemployment benefits that ensured continuing aid for hundreds of thousands of jobless people.

The pairing might have seemed odd at one time, but it reinforced the fact that Clinton has become a legislative force in the Senate.

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