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Why Hillary May Have Mixed Feelings Over Fla. Fiasco

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Lynsey Addario/AP

Hillary Rodham Clinton greets supporters on election night in New York

Pity poor Hillary Clinton. She must be quite torn.

On the one hand, New York's new junior U.S. Senator would probably love nothing more than to assume the mantle of Washington's most prominent Democrat. But that scenario, of course, requires Al Gore to lose the presidential election. If Gore prevails in the Florida cliffhanger, the Democratic cause will be better served in Washington, but Clinton herself will be pushed back down the ladder of power.

In the canon of campaign promises, it shouldnĺt make any real difference: Clinton's campaign focused primarily on her interest in "serving the people of New York," a cause that can be advanced no matter who takes the White House. Sure, a Gore presidency would make it infinitesimally easier for congressional Dems to pass big-ticket items, but a nearly perfectly balanced House and Senate means gridlock will likely prevail no matter who becomes president.

If Clinton is to serve her real constituency, (i.e., the women and minorities who elected her Tuesday), sheĺll have to wrangle appointments to the right committees, settle down into her relatively lowly position ("Just take one of those chairs in the last row, Senator Clinton") and gain her colleagues' trust. The last task could be the toughest: After all, Clinton wasn't just running against Lazio — and he wasn't just running against her. Both candidates had to contend with the phantom of Bill Clinton, albeit in different ways.

Lazio was running against an anti-anti-Clinton sentiment; in other words, though plenty of people in New York State were disgusted by the president's affair with Monica Lewinsky, at least as many had come away from the last six years equating Lazio's former boss (Newt Gingrich) with Satan incarnate. For pretty much every Clinton-fatigue vote that went to Lazio, at least one GOP-fatigue ballot went to Clinton. And Bill Clinton's wife picked up quite a few sympathy votes, as well — because while Hillary never showed a weepy face to the public, her anguish was made so evident by her iciness, and that cold control may have won more hearts than any great display of sobbing.

As the post-election postmortems cool off, it's time for Hillary to get to work. What was her first task? Disavowing those rampant White House rumors. And while Clinton has made it (ahem) very clear that even if Al Gore loses Florida, she will not seek the presidency during her first six-year term in Congress, few Washington insiders doubt she's got her eyes firmly fixed on the White House. It's just a matter of time, most agree.

And although it's hardly surprising that the thought of a third Clinton term strikes fear into the hearts of American conservatives, even ranking congressional Democrats are reportedly prepared to keep Hillary's dreams of ascendancy firmly in check — at least during her first few years in office.