WASHINGTON — When she entered the Democratic presidential race 16 months ago, Hillary Rodham Clinton was a cautious front-runner, a careful calibrator of moderate positions, focused largely on showing that a woman could be tough enough to serve as commander in chief.
But that was before Illinois Sen. Barack Obama threw the New York senator's sure-thing campaign off track and forced her to "find her voice," as she put it. By this week, as her campaign lurched to an awkward close, Clinton had embraced a strikingly different role: a defiant insurgent, a spokeswoman for working-class voters who she said "felt invisible," an all-too-human candidate who defined the historic moment's central question as: "What does Hillary Clinton want?"
Now, after her own friends stepped in to nudge her to cede the spotlight to Obama, Clinton must change roles again, from tenacious underdog to presumably gracious loser. That transition could start Saturday, as Clinton holds a Washington event to thank her supporters and rally them around Obama. Then she must begin the sober task of charting a post-campaign career.
Her next chapter could include a role as Obama's running mate, although on Friday she downplayed efforts to put her on the ticket, saying the choice was Obama's alone. More likely, it will mean a return to the Senate, even more prominent than she was before, to work on healthcare and other issues she has long championed. And she may well begin preparing for another run for president -- in 2012 if Obama loses this fall, in 2016 if he wins.
"Hillary Clinton still wants to be president of the United States. That desire may be chilled for now, but it will come into play in every decision she makes," said political strategist Hank Sheinkopf, who worked on President Bill Clinton's reelection campaign in 1996.
Reevaluating the brand
But athwart every possible path stands a question Clinton's friends and supporters have been privately debating: What has this campaign, with its role changes and melodramatic turns, done to Hillary Clinton's brand? Has her standing as a national politician been fatally damaged by her loss to an upstart challenger -- or has she actually been strengthened for the long run?
In some ways, her image is stronger: Clinton won 18 million votes and a devoted following among many Democrats, especially women.
"One thing she accomplished in this campaign is that she has finally emerged as an individual in her own right," argued Michael Berman, a Democratic strategist who supported Clinton. "When she began this campaign, she was still the former first lady, the senator married to President Clinton. I think she is now the Clinton."
But in other ways, Clinton's standing has suffered. Her campaign's strategic blunders dented her image of steely competence. Her image in the eyes of the general public actually eroded slightly during the campaign.
In February, 52% of respondents in a Pew Research Center poll said they had a positive impression of her; by May, the number was down to 48%. And her indecision this week about whether to suspend her campaign, even after Obama had amassed a clear majority of delegate votes, led some of her own supporters to worry that she was damaging her standing in the eyes of the party.
The first thing Clinton needs to do to secure her own future, several said, is to campaign effectively for Obama this fall. "She's extraordinarily important to his campaign," said one Clinton advisor, insisting on anonymity because he was speaking without authorization. "She can help rally the Democratic base and let him focus on swing voters."
After that, "she has to decide: Who does she want to be over the next five to 10 years?" Berman said.
Clinton needs to do repair work with several constituencies: African Americans, who felt bruised by her attacks on Obama; superdelegates and other party insiders, who complained about her campaign's strong-arm tactics to win their support; and other senators, who give little deference to the numerous former presidential candidates in their midst.
"It has to be tough on her personally," said former Louisiana Sen. John Breaux, who supported Clinton during the primaries. "She's going to have to swallow her pride and work with all these folks again."
'She did find her voice'
One prospect that seems unlikely, senators have said privately, is a bid by Clinton to replace Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) as majority leader. Reid has dismissed any talk of relinquishing the job. And Clinton, who ranks 36th in seniority among the 49 Senate Democrats, has not gained enough seniority to serve as even a committee chairwoman.
But Breaux and others predicted that Clinton would move to take up Edward M. Kennedy's role as a leading Senate voice on healthcare and other domestic matters -- particularly with the Massachusetts senator battling brain cancer.