Asking Oprah Winfrey whether she has read the latest National Enquirer -- the one with her tear-streaked face across the cover with these words: "My rape ordeal at age 9 -- why I'm fighting for America's kids" -- is sort of like asking Dan Quayle if he's been keeping up with "Doonesbury."

"I saw the cover," she announces simply, "and I refused to read the story."

But wait! This maligned supermarket tabloid, which for so long has infuriated Winfrey with gossip about her love life and her weight, seems actually to be on her side this time, hailing the talk show host's new "national crusade to save America's children from physical and sexual abuse."

She takes a look. "Hmmm." She sees the little dotted-line coupon in the bottom corner, addressed to the U.S. Congress. "I am outraged at the epidemic of child abuse across our great land," it says. "I fully support your efforts to pass the vitally needed National Child Protection Act of 1991." Which, without exaggeration, is her National Child Protection Act.

"Well," Winfrey says, "they are finally going to do some good."

And then, in a burst of Opravian good nature -- you know, the down-home accent and the giggle -- she critiques her pouty, weeping image on the page. "A girl can look bad when she cries, can't she? It is hard to cry pretty, ain't it?"

Another good moment in a very good day on Capitol Hill for one rich, well-loved, 37-year-old American woman who has thrown herself into the world of politics in a serious way.

Ms. Winfrey Goes to Washington.

She testified yesterday before the Senate Judiciary Committee -- and everyone knows what a tough bunch that is -- and she had them eating out of her hand. Hatch, Metzenbaum, Simpson, all of them. "I knew her before she was famous, Mr. Chairman," Paul Simon, the Illinois Democrat, made a point of saying. Committee Chairman Joseph Biden (D-Del.) told her after her testimony, "I look forward to your announcement to run for public office." Punctuated, of course, with his famous catlike smile.

Strom Thurmond, South Carolina Republican and senior member of the committee, later introduced Winfrey to the press, holding her hand, calling her a great woman.

The legislation under discussion would create a national registry of convicted child abusers, so that day-care centers could run background checks on prospective employees. In the six states with similar systems already in place -- California, Iowa, Florida, Minnesota, Texas and Washington -- 6,200 convicted criminals in the past year have been detected seeking jobs as child-care providers, according to Biden.

Winfrey is more than some celebrity day-tripper loaning herself out as a media magnet for a worthy cause. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse herself, and newly determined to do something, she personally hired the hotshot Chicago law firm of Winston and Strawn in April to draft a National Child Protection Act. This TV star actually retained James Thompson, the former governor of Illinois! Yesterday he was there in the Senate conference room with her.

"I am committed to using all of my will to follow through on this legislation, and on the issue of child abuse," Winfrey told the committee. "I intend to make this my second career."

A few hours later, in a restaurant in Union Station, she's taking reporters one at a time. Two sharp-looking representatives of the Ruder Finn public relations agency, which is handling this part of it, sit nearby. "Rackin' up dollars by the hour!" she says playfully. "You should see the bills!"

This is indeed costing Winfrey "a lot of money," she says. "But you know, I used to write checks all the time. And I make decisions to give money based on my gut, like I make all other decisions in my life. I'm an instinct player. And I still write a lot of checks. That's the easiest thing somebody like me can do, I think, is write a check."

Just last week, for instance, she wrote out a big one to a day-care center that told her it needed books and toys and equipment. "They sent me the little pictures of all the kids and so forth," she says. "But I don't believe that is effective in changing a life. And that's what I really want to do -- change a life.

"I've paid lip service to it for years. I've gone around and done speaking engagements. I get on my show and I say, 'We really ought to do something.' " Here, Winfrey's voice escalates into mockery. " 'How can we let this happen, people?'

"And that's all I'd say. And then I went home and I continued my life. As everybody else does."

But this political thing -- "my new career as a child advocate," she calls it -- "this takes work," she says. "It takes money, it takes energy, it takes a lot of your time. I should have been {taping} shows today. This is a ratings period. But I made the commitment because it's a part of my own healing. I think it does no good for me to have had all of this horror in my life, and not be able to grow from it."

Painful Memories "The Oprah Winfrey Show" has been syndicated nationally since 1986, in which time Winfrey's become the queen of daytime talk. It was on her own show, early on, that Winfrey revealed she'd been raped at age 9 by a cousin, then molested over the next five years by a family friend, and molested once by an uncle. The abuse ended at age 14, when she was sent from Milwaukee to live with her father down South. Winfrey has long called this the turning point in her life.

But she's still dealing with the hurt and the guilt.

"The last time I was sexually molested was by my uncle," she says. "And I adored this uncle. Just adored him. And I could not, in my mind, up until two weeks ago, make him be the bad guy. We had started this conversation, we were talking about boys at school. From the boys at school, the conversation went to kissing boys and 'Have you ever kissed boys?' And the next thing I know, he was taking my panties off. My uncle whom I adored."

Two weeks ago, Winfrey was recalling this while driving with two girlfriends to her 200-acre farm in Indiana, the place she goes to relax. And until that time, "I had always said, 'If I had not talked about what happened to me at school, it wouldn't have happened.' I thought, well, it was a conversation about kissing, and maybe that's what aroused him, and he thought because I was talking about kissing boys, that meant I wanted to kiss him. And that's what my uncle had told me. 'You started it.'

"And one of my friends said, 'Are you crazy? An adult doesn't have the right to molest you because of a conversation.'

"Now I know what I have been saying for years, and that is: Children are never to blame," says Winfrey. "I've been saying it, saying it, but thought: 'Okay, children are never to blame in most cases, but I was to blame in that case.' I don't think that anymore. The adult has to take the responsibility."

To this day, Winfrey hasn't resolved the matter with her family, nor has she confronted her abusers. "I believe that you should confront your abuser when it's going to help your healing. For a lot of people, confronting the abuser destroys them. It tears the family apart. They don't have the courage to do it. And when the family comes in against them, they can't handle it because they need their support.

"For me, making it known to my father and my mother and the people in the family who needed to know, that was my way of confronting," she says. "I just recently came across the uncle who had abused me. We said absolutely nothing. He knows and I know, and the rest of the family knows. But they all act as though it never happened. My latent anger has come from not having the rest of the family acknowledge it. I feel they contributed to my feelings of shame and blaming myself by not acknowledging that, yes, this happened."

The proposed National Child Protection Act will do nothing to prevent the kind of abuse Winfrey endured. It's aimed exclusively at child-care providers. But as she told the Senate Judiciary Committee by way of a parting comment, "I'll be back."

Her ultimate legislative goal, she says, is nationwide mandatory sentencing for child abusers. No plea bargains. No parole. To Winfrey, such a law would demonstrate that "we value children enough to say that when you hurt a child, this is what happens to you. It's not negotiable."

Such a law, she says, would have saved 4-year-old Angelica Mena, a Chicago girl whose murder last winter shook Winfrey out of her complacency. Winfrey told the senators that the girl left her mother's second-floor apartment to visit an aunt on the first floor. On the way, she was abducted by a next-door neighbor. She was molested, strangled and thrown into Lake Michigan. The killer had two previous convictions for kidnapping and child rape and had been released after serving seven years of a 15-year sentence.

Winfrey saw the story unfold on the local television news and "vowed ... to do something," she testified, "to take a stand for the children of this country."

In March Andrew Vachss, an attorney and child-protection advocate, was a guest on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," discussing the Angelica Mena case. It was Vachss who gave Winfrey the idea for a national registry of convicted abusers.

He also gave her a piece of advice as she prepared to enter the realm of national politics: "Start with something doable. Don't try to change the world tomorrow."

Winfrey plans to be back on Capitol Hill in a couple of weeks, doing a little door-to-door lobbying on the House side for the National Child Protection Act. "It's such a tiny step," she says of the proposal, "that if it's not passed, I will -- I will be surprised." She laughs at her careful choice of words.

Overachieving to Forget So this is a "second career," huh? What about the four Oprah Winfrey has already? Talk show host. Dramatic actress ("The Color Purple," "Native Son"). Movie and TV producer ("The Women of Brewster Place"). Even restaurateur. She's a major investor in a Chicago eatery called the Eccentric. "I don't cook. Don't plan to," she says. "But you can get Oprah's Potatoes, an old recipe from my family." That's if you like horseradish.

Monday night, Winfrey was in New York for the opening of "Mississippi Delta," a play she's co-producing.

And let's not forget the teenage girls from a Chicago housing project whom she mentors.

Being an overachiever, Winfrey says, was actually a way of coping with her background of abuse. "As a child, I was always trying to make myself loved. And the way I could receive what I thought was love was through achievement. When I got the A's in the class, the teacher responded and that made me a good person, I thought. When I was the first one to finish the book report, the first one to raise my hand and speak up, I got attention. And that is what worked for me."

The irony, of course, is that her vast success, and the grace with which she handles it, gets in the way of resolving with family members her rape and molestation. " 'What does it matter now?' That's what they think. 'What does it matter, what happened then? Look at you now. You're doing fine.' "

Even by Winfrey's own dizzying standard, 1992 is shaping up to be a hectic year for her. She will devote a number of shows to issues of child abuse and neglect as she develops her political agenda. She also plans to produce and star in a feature film based on Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "Beloved." And she's developing other dramatic projects for television.

And what of Winfrey's long-standing romance with the tall, dashing Stedman Graham? She doesn't mind you asking. Really.

"The National Enquirer is wrong," she declares, grinning. "I don't have a ring. I'm not getting married. I'm not interested in getting married. And neither is he. We're having a good time. I don't have time to get married! When could I have a wedding?" She throws up her arms. Voice goes up an octave. "I'm doing a movie and I'm doing this!"

Settling down, she puts it this way: "I don't have time to be married, because then you have to go home sometimes."