WILSON, N.C. -- The donkey did it.

"The highlight of my birthday," said Hillary Clinton of the life-size papier-mache animal that had her trying to stifle a laugh.

Did it have a name? Could she touch it? Where'd they find it?

"I want to know if I'm receiving stolen goods," she said, arching an eyebrow -- you know, the way any skeptical lawyer might lay it on the line to prospective clients of somewhat dubious repute.

"We can't say," yelled back one of the photo-dogs from a Clinton-Gore campaign bus in the 16-vehicle caravan that was cruising across the state.

She's almost laughing, but not quite. She's playing her part: the tough lawyer. And enjoying it.

"We liberated him," shouted another.

One report, unconfirmed, was that the ragged photogs had "liberated" this symbol of the Democratic Party from deep in the heart of Jesse Helms country -- the front steps of the Raleigh City Hall -- and given it to Clinton in celebration of her 45th birthday. They'd surprised her with it while she was working the rope line, shaking hands and hugging babies.

"They just crack me up," she said of these chroniclers of her every move. And it seemed that this woman who was once viewed as unapproachable cracked them up as well.

It hasn't been easy being the Woman in this Year of the Woman, everybody's favorite target for all that's dangerous about being independent, smart, impatient, articulate, outspoken, ambitious -- and while she's at it, a three-fer: wife, mother and successful corporate lawyer. By any standard, Hillary Clinton has been a handful for America to deal with.

Yet Clinton has made it through to the end. Past all last spring's scrutiny as the would-be co-president, the feisty political helpmate, the wronged wife, the disavowing cookie baker. Past the summer of GOP discontent when a political convention focused an amazing amount of energy on the opponent's wife as "that dowdy feminazi" with views so "radical" they threatened to untie the very apron strings of American momism. Past, too, the discarded preppy headbands and mannish suits on the way to the crucial final perception: a softer, gentler, warmer Hillary who waves a lot these days but no longer makes them, and with whom not just feminists but many voters can feel more comfortable -- whether they intend to pull the lever for her husband or not.

If the political process has brought her to this, then so be it. At this point in the campaign, the polls indicate she is no longer a liability to Bill Clinton; in a variety of surveys, her "negatives" are down from their startlingly high levels of the spring. She's no Barbara Bush, but she doesn't appear to be a drag on the ticket either. It is a gratifying shift accomplished by a determined woman who's been through what others might regard as a devastating experience but which she calls "remarkably positive."

"You go back and look at the kinds of things that happened this year," she said the other day, "and so much of it was not about me or my husband, so far as I know and care about our life together. It was politically motivated, off base. You have to learn how to take political attacks seriously but not personally so that you don't let them interfere with who you are."

What she did take seriously was how those attacks appeared from the outside, and thus it was her outside that she changed. "I knew that what was being said wasn't true. I took it seriously because obviously if people thought that, or if the political system was being manipulated by people who wanted people to think that, one had to take that seriously."

She thought all the Hillary bashing was "sad, at first," but the intensity left her surprised, then hurt. Once she analyzed why GOP strategists went after her, she came to the conclusion they were scared. "You don't spend two or three days at a national political convention beating up on someone unless you're scared. It was a deliberate strategy. In kind of a backhanded way I was complimented. I figured, 'Wow! Listen to this!' "

And she broke into laughter, just remembering how it struck her.

Ultimately she found comfort in a strange quarter: Richard Nixon. She recalled that the first person to attack her Out of the Blue before even the New Hampshire primary heated up was Nixon.

Certainly, it could have been because "he never forgets anything" and she had once been a staff attorney on the Senate staff that studied his impeachment in 1974. But she preferred to believe the other Nixon, the grand old political analyst who saw ahead of others that "there was a lot going on under the surface of this country and people were anxious for change."

"He was launching a preemptive attack," she says, "to try and in some way denigrate my husband because he's unafraid of smart and intelligent women and really believes that women ought to have opportunities to serve."

True or not, one gathers strength where one can.

The outcome of this kind of Hillary bashing has been one of the great sub-themes of the campaign, turning the race on one level into an ongoing national seminar on the role of women. Looking at the newer, quieter Hillary, some might even conclude that the outcome of this debate has been that the political process has succeeded in reining in women a few steps.

But Hillary Clinton sees the conflict as inevitable and also momentary -- "some last step" of symbolic importance that hasn't happened before "because we haven't had people contending for the presidency who were born after World War II, who were really part of this change."

For all the criticism, she says, she's been gratified by the people who've reached out to identify with her with signs like, "Stay at Home Moms for Hillary."

"I think they hope that with Bill and Al and Tipper and me there will be people who understand what's going on in the country right now at the very basic level, and have a grasp about the challenges that families are facing and that women in particular are confronting."

Buscapades

If she's playing a role, she seems to be playing it with ease. That's easiest to see in the looseness on the campaign bus. Comic relief is the escape valve in this grueling cocoon of campaign madness. "You sort of got to develop a sense of humor," said Bill Clinton the other day when the countdown to Election Day '92 had dropped below the 200-hour mark. "Sometimes you laugh just to keep from crying." Tipper Gore did more than laugh. She had a whale of a good time aiming her camera and, at the Greensboro, N.C., airport one night, aiming her squirt gun at Al Gore's aides spilling off his plane onto the tarmac. She scored bull's-eyes right and left, including one on a hapless reporter watching from the sidelines. The next day, during a hoke-it-up photo op aboard their customized bus, Tipper and Hillary climbed onto the laps of their spouses for the benefit of still photographers. (Video photo-dogs boycotted the session because their reporters were barred.)

"This is home away from home," said Hillary.

"If we win this thing," added her husband, "we're going to park this bus out behind the White House."

Winning "this thing" is still anybody's guess.

Hillary tries not to think about it very much, or about how in less than a week now her life may never again be the same. "Partly because I'm reluctant to speculate like that. It's like a no-hit game. It's going well. We feel we're getting the campaign message across and I just don't even want to imagine" anything beyond the moment.

In Helmsland (renamed "Hillaryland" on oversized birthday buttons passed out by family pal Brook Shearer), the Clinton-Gore "Road to Change" buses cutting a 200-mile swath between Winston-Salem and Kinston was a hard-driving effort to erase the tire tracks of the Bush machine that had rolled through a few days earlier.

"We may be the only state in the union that goes for Bush," fretted Sam Ervin's cousin, Burgess McSwain, who drove miles to wait, like others among the already converted, at one of the "impromptu" stops in towns where statues of Confederate soldiers tower above courthouse squares; where words carved in granite remind that "on fame's eternal camping ground their silent tents are spread ... " and where cafeterias like Ruth's never did have a "g" on the "Home Cookin" sign painted above the front door.

Talkin' Southern wasn't all that hard. Illinois-born, Wellesley- and Yale-educated Hillary Clinton learned long ago to drop her g's with the best of 'em. In remarks that turned out to be her longest of the day, she apologized for being late and recalled the time they vowed not to stop ever again because they were runnin' three hours behind.

"All of a sudden we heard there were about 250 to 300 people up in a rest stop hopin' the buses would stop. Bill said, 'What are we going to do?' and everybody said, 'Well, we're just going to have to go right by them.' Bill didn't like that but finally agreed and the buses were goin' by kind of slow and he was wavin' out the window and all of a sudden he saw a sign that a man was holdin' that said 'Give us eight minutes and we'll give you eight years' and Bill said, 'Stop the bus!' "

You could call it a kind of stand-by-your-man story.

Early Hillary

"I mean," said Hillary Clinton, "if all I thought was going to happen was moving into the White House and going to Camp David for weekends, having a ceremonial role, I think that neither Bill nor I nor the Gores would be there. I mean, that is just not what's at stake in this election."

There. She's said it. In an interview, some of the early-1992 version of Hillary comes out. She may not be making headlines anymore, but she has not retreated into a shell. Recent impressions aside, her words make clear that anyone who thinks she would be a passive First Lady isn't paying close enough attention.

Unlike traditional political wives of the past, she has no misgivings about talking issues. She has never stopped being one of her husband's key advisers and when she wants to, she speaks with authority. She also intends to have her own issues, though she claims she hasn't determined the specifics of her own priorities other than that they will relate to maternal and child health care.

"Among Bill's priorities is dealing with the health care system, and I am particularly adamant that whatever we do ... if we had a decent prenatal care system and early childhood health care system we would be saving money in a relatively short period of time," she said.

But she also shows a keen awareness of just what sort of world of limits her husband may be buying into. "Nobody really knows what the financial situation is," she said. "There's a great concern that Bill will be elected president and begin to see a great unraveling, which is always a danger when you assume an office but seems particularly acute now because of the disarray in this government. The extraordinary spectacle of agencies investigating one another and pointing fingers at one another suggest that there's just a lot that is not right and we probably don't even know about it."

Cat's Out of the Bag

Chelsea Clinton, 12, had no trouble at all putting away a gigantic slice of her mother's chocolate birthday cake, even with the reporters coming out of the walls at Robinson's Restaurant in Greensboro. Between bites, Hillary kept a motherly eye trained, finally dispatching an aide to run interference.

"We have Chelsea out because we figured the last bus trip would be a special occasion," Hillary told owner Roosevelt Robinson.

Sarah Gore, 13, was out, too, and self-consciously standing together at times, or sitting on a lawn in front of the candidates, they giggled and whispered and had what Hillary later described as a "a different take on it, the kinds of things they see. At one point Tipper and I were up there laughing just watching Chelsea and Sarah in the crowd."

According to her mother, Chelsea is well aware of what's happening and what would happen if Bill Clinton wins. "But my concern is just giving her the chance to have her own life, to be able to grow up as normally as possible if she's living in the White House. And that's what I'm going to be focused on if the day after the election we wake up and that's what we have to start planning," said Hillary.

What she hasn't focused on is Socks, Chelsea's 2 1/2-year-old cat who is not at all "standoffish or aloof but warm and loving and noble" and made them all feel better when they got him -- even if Hillary and Bill are allergic to him.

The interview took an unexpected turn when she asked if what a Secret Service agent told them -- that there are mice and rats in the White House -- could possibly be true.

And if Barbara Bush really did find a rat doing the backstroke in the swimming pool?

Maybe it was visions of Socks to the rescue but suddenly Hillary cheered "Yeah, Socks! Socks might be the happiest human -- or animal -- being moving to Washington. I wonder if we could show him pictures of rats?"

Buoyed by the news that there hasn't been a First Cat since Amy Carter lived at 1600, and that cat lovers of the country would probably feel enfranchised again, she regained her composure as campaign strategist.

"Exit Poll," she said, playing the poll-taker. "Did you vote for the Clintons because they have a cat?"

The potential was mind-boggling.

"I love it!" she cried, convulsed by laughter. "Oh, god, I love it!"