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For Now, an Unofficial Rivalry

Interactions between potential presidential candidates Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) are getting extra attention in the Senate.
Interactions between potential presidential candidates Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) are getting extra attention in the Senate. (By Evan Vucci -- Associated Press)

Speaking later to reporters, he made a point of praising Clinton. "I think she is tough, I think she is disciplined, I think she is smart, and I'm not one of those people who believe she can't win," Obama said. "I recognize it's fun to set these things up as a contest between the two of us."

Clinton has been less effusive. She rarely comments publicly on Obama, and when she does, it's often in snippets. She declined a request to be interviewed for this article. In October, she said "it's great" that he is thinking of running for president. And Democrats credit her for letting Obama and a first-term senator, Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), headline a Capitol Hill media event last year while other senior Democrats grumbled about their nonspeaking roles.

Some of Clinton's chief supporters, however, have been less charitable. John Catsimatidis, a supermarket magnate and Clinton donor, said yesterday of Obama: "He might be ready for prime time, but I think it's too early."

Clinton and Obama were unusual senators from the start. They hired established, high-level staffers such as Pete Rouse, who was chief of staff for former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) and took the same job in Obama's office, and Tamera Luzzatto, the former top aide to Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.), who now runs Clinton's staff.

Both senators maintained low profiles, at least at first, restricting most public activities to home-state events. Despite their megawatt qualities, both were deferential to older colleagues, and both made friends and co-sponsored legislation with Republicans.

Because Clinton spent eight years in the White House, she is a particular anomaly, escorted through the corridors by a security detail and rarely engaging in hallway banter with reporters before and after votes. On Tuesday, Obama lingered by the elevators near the Senate floor, feeding quotes on Medicare and tax cuts to a gaggle of scribes. Clinton rushed by a few minutes later, flanked by staff members, and headed straight onto a waiting elevator.

"She likes to stand alone," said one senior Senate staffer.

Clinton's colleagues were surprised when she teamed up with former GOP House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) on health-care initiatives, and when she staked out a moderate stance on abortion in a prominent speech in January 2005. But her reluctance to hog the spotlight has earned her considerable goodwill -- to the extent that some of her colleagues have speculated that she might become the top Democratic leader someday, should her presidential bid falter.

Obama, only two years removed from the Illinois legislature, initially stirred jealousy among some colleagues for the rave reviews of his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. But he earned loads of gratitude and goodwill by campaigning doggedly for fellow Democrats this fall, often drawing the largest crowd of each campaign.

Senators say Obama's explosive rise has startled Clinton and her advisers, who are mulling how to react. With Obama planning a trip to the early-primary state of New Hampshire on Sunday, they may need to decide soon.

"Hang on tight," advised Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), an Obama fan. "They ain't seen nothing yet."

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