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Capitol Hill

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If time doesn't heal all wounds, a Senate seat just might. After a dogged campaign, the First Lady gets a chance to work on a legacy all her own
By MARGARET CARLSON

While some women get a diamond necklace or a trip to Paris from an errant spouse, Hillary Clinton got herself a U.S. Senate seat. And unlike Al Gore, she soaked up the President's help. Now with the Middle East peace in tatters, impeachment in the first paragraph of his obituary, and Al Gore's status uncertain, Senator Clinton is a legacy the President can cling to for now.

But not too closely. After keeping quiet at Gore's insistence for six months, the President may have to zip it for six more years. Senator-elect Clinton personally choreographed her victory celebration. She stood between her new colleague, senior New York senator Charles Schumer, and Chelsea, with the President banished to the side. There would be no Tipper-Al embrace for them. He wiped away a tear. She shed none. His staff explained, "It was her night." There will be no co-senatorship.

Only in hindsight does Hillary's run look plausible. New York has a 2 million-voter Democratic advantage; there would be Gore's coattails and Lieberman to bring out the Jewish vote. At the beginning there were obvious drawbacks. Surely a sitting First Lady wouldn't abandon the White House for a place in the suburbs of Westchester County to run for office in a state she had only visited. New York is celebrity friendly, but her fame ran more to Evita than Mother Teresa in a co-presidency of more failures than triumphs. Before impeachment, Hillary was one of the more unpopular first ladies. She bungled the administration's biggest domestic project - health care - after wresting it from Gore's portfolio. Her fingerprints were everywhere, especially on the scandals (from Whitewater to Travelgate). In every crisis, her reflexive response was to blame others, rail against enemies and stonewall, unless called before a grand jury, at which point she would be overcome by short- and long-term memory loss. It wasn't until the President found himself under siege that her popularity took off. By the end of impeachment, she realized that, Sally Fieldşlike, people really liked her, so she decided to run.

Clinton made mistakes early on as a campaigner, many of which came from trying to pretend that her birthplace of Chicago was an outer borough of New York City. It bordered on the sacrilegious to don a Yankees cap when she had been a well-known Chicago Cubs fan. It remained such a toxic moment that she couldn't risk taking the D train to the Subway Series to join in the purest of Big Apple moments. Rather than the usual grip and grin, she embarked on a listening tour, looking at times like Margaret Mead visiting the Samoans. A Big Apple neophyte, she bungled interest-group politics with a notorious flip-flop on clemency for unrepentant Puerto Rican terrorists.

Fortunately, while Clinton was making her worst mistakes, she was running against a distracted Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose negatives were as high as hers and who played out his marital crisis on the 6 o'clock news. When Giuliani finally dropped out to fight prostate cancer, the Rottweiler was replaced by a puppy dog named Rick Lazio from Long Island, a four-term congressman with a picture-perfect family who had nursed his father through a stroke. He reminded some, physically at least, of a young Dan Quayle with brains. He was so frisky at a Memorial Day parade, trying to shake as many hands as possible, that he literally fell on his face. He had to introduce himself to voters with a fat lip.

Lazio wasn't a bad candidate, but he pitched most of his effort at emphasizing what he wasn't: a carpetbagger or associated with that infidel in the White House. While he made those two points, Hillary was dandling hundreds of babies upstate, where Lazio was as much of a carpetbagger as she was. Clinton told a friend, as she was well on her way to racking up visits to all 62 counties, that upstate New York was a lot like Arkansas. And indeed, she seemed at home there, mastering the arcana of dairy-price supports and economic revitalization. While Lazio seemed reluctant to accept that good times had not suffused the state, Clinton was commiserating with those left behind by the current boom. She could still leech the life out of a large audience with her platitudinous speeches; but at diners, schools and community centers she was able to connect one on one. Among nurses, teachers and social workers, she was a goddess who understood what they were up against. Rather than faulting her for muffing health-care reform, they rewarded her for trying.

The carpetbagging charge faded because Clinton was there so much. She even gave up time in the glittery New York outpost of Martha's Vineyard to vacation amid the blackflies of Skaneateles. She was the first up and last to bed, handshaking her way through county fairs and college campuses, just plain outworking her opponent. And as much as yuppie women may have been skeptical of Hillary's motives, upstate women of a certain age greeted her like Oprah, an avatar of spiritual renewal touching down in Poughkeepsie. They turned out for her, stayed afterward, lined up for autographs. Her first victory lap began upstate in Albany, Rochester and Syracuse.

Meanwhile, Lazio slighted upstate, trying instead to exploit Clinton's weakness in the suburbs and among Jews. He flubbed the first debate when he invaded her personal space, shouting at her to sign a paper forswearing soft money. She would eventually agree, and he was never able to get much juice out of the Lincoln Bedroom afterward. In the final days of the campaign, Lazio accused Clinton of supporting terrorism because she had accepted a donation from an Arab American who had praised Hizballah. Clinton returned the money, no one believed she was soft on bin Laden, and the charge backfired.

Clinton's victory depended on some intangibles. Time heals wounds - perhaps not Hillary's inner ones but those nursed by some voters against her for the mess she was part of in Washington. Other voters may have believed she shouldn't be made to suffer - or that she suffered enough - for her husband's sins. New Yorkers want someone bigger than life, and Little Ricky was no match for a vanity candidate like Hillary.

Clinton may finally have what she wished for, however lonely it may look with a husband building his library in Little Rock, a daughter in California, a frequently empty house in Chappaqua, makeshift digs in Washington and Manhattan and a job at the Capitol. New York has provided the stage for the diva to triumph over the evil forces arrayed against her. And, instead of expiring in Act III, she has hit high C. But Washington calls for deference to one's esteemed colleagues, even from its prima donnas, if you're to bring home the bacon. When Hillary offered that she hoped to form "bipartisan coalitions," Republican majority leader Trent Lott snapped,"I'll tell you one thing: When this Hillary gets to the Senate - if she does, maybe lightning will strike and she won't - she will be one of 100, and we won't let her forget it." Shades of Lazio, Ken Starr, the GOP impeachment posse?

She couldn't ask for more. If it weren't for men, including her husband, making a martyr of her, would we be calling her Senator?