Complicating the debate is that even among sympathetic Democrats there is hardly a consensus about what the Clinton legacy is. Some people put the emphasis on style, noting his southern roots and ability to connect with voters in a down-home, conversational way. On policy, a debate that began early in his presidency still echoes. Moderate Democrats say the key to Clinton's political success was his willingness to defy liberal orthodoxy on welfare, free trade and balanced budgets. Liberals note that he prevailed by confronting Republicans with promises to protect traditional Democratic programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
"Everyone picks out different threads in the tapestry," noted former White House chief of staff John D. Podesta.
Just which threads of that tapestry Hillary Clinton intends to emphasize is still uncertain, but people close to her say they regard it as a virtual given that she will seek the presidency in 2008.
The New York senator does not fit neatly in an ideological box. Since moving out of the White House and launching her Senate bid in 1999, she has steadfastly cultivated a centrist record. As a senator, she has voted for the Iraq war and Bush's $87 billion request for the postwar occupation. She employs Penn, one of her husband's top aides, whose specialty is finding poll-tested policy ideas that appeal to swing voters.
But for many voters she remains the author of an overreaching health care plan in 1994 and the ideological warrior who denounced the "vast right-wing conspiracy." Political strategists disagree whether this diverse history would prove a liability, or allow her to unite both wings of the Democratic Party by letting both sides believe she is one of them.
No matter her real designs, she must first win reelection in 2006 -- a potentially formidable task if a major New York Republican such as Gov. George E. Pataki or former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani decides to challenge her. And she faces a delicate balancing act.
Hillary Clinton quieted some of her critics by taking a nose-to-the-grindstone approach in the Senate, where she has focused heavily on New York issues, assumed the role of team player with her fellow Democrats and even courted some conservative Republicans to pass legislation. If, as expected, she begins to step out more to enhance her profile as a national leader, she will summon the intense media scrutiny and partisan opposition that made her a divisive figure in the first place.
Before Kerry seized the nomination in 2004, polls routinely cited Hillary Clinton as the most popular choice among Democrats. Some operatives warn that it is unlikely she can sustain this popularity for several years without inviting second thoughts among Democrats, who might conclude that the best way to emulate the electoral success of Clinton is not with someone whose last name is Clinton.
Hillary Clinton, says one former Kerry adviser who worked in Clinton's White House, is red meat for the red states. "Now that we lost, it's going to be harder for her," said this Democrat, who did not wish to speak on the record for fear of offending the former first family. "She comes from the bluest of the blue states, and she's polarizing. That's not going to be seen as the way to win those [culturally traditional] voters we lost."
Michael Tomasky, executive editor of the liberal American Prospect magazine and the author of a book on Hillary Clinton's 2000 Senate campaign, said people should not assume she cannot win moderate voters the same way her husband did. In 2000, he noted, she defied stereotypes and ran nearly even with her opponent in Upstate New York, which normally votes overwhelmingly Republican.
But at least until the ceremonial ribbon is snipped at the new presidential library, all eyes will be on Bill Clinton. And from Clinton's perspective, the focus on his own record comes at a fortuitous moment. "The overwhelming view among Democrats," including many liberals who regarded Clinton as an opportunist while in office, Tomasky said, "is that his presidency was a success."