She has gone through what she calls her Domestic Policy Speech before, usually for groups but once for her parents, who had wanted to know just what exactly she is doing up here. That is not an unfair question, considering that what she is doing up here affects not only her family but 250 million other Americans, most of whom have never heard of Carol Hampton Rasco.

Patiently and methodically, much the way she must have reviewed lessons when she was a teacher, she is going over the material again. This time for an audience of one in her White House office, strategically located over the Oval Office and two doors down the hall from the First Lady's office. Indeed, if the accent weren't undeniably Arkansas, it might be Hillary Rodham Clinton talking. The message is about children and what kind of a future they can expect from this country. "Overall," Rasco says, "I want to know that I tried my very best here to promote programs that empowered children to be the best they can be."

In a nutshell, Carol Rasco is Clinton's domestic policy adviser. She runs the Domestic Policy Council, an amalgam of White House and Cabinet officials who develop positions for the administration on an encyclopedia full of problems from homelessness to violence and including the defining issue of the president and Hillary Clinton: health care reform.

Up until this month, health care had taken a back seat to the budget, but Rasco says the White House staff "never really internally slowed down" on it and the issue will move to the top of the agenda when the business of Washington resumes in earnest after Labor Day.

Some at the White House call her the "agenda czarina" because, as one staff member puts it, "in a Washington world where economic banter is about numbers and percentages and the impact of the GNP, people tend to get lost. That's where Carol and the human investment come in."

One of her two deputies, Bruce Reed, says that "policy is not just an academic exercise for her. She knows it can mean the difference between helping and frustrating people."

Carol Rasco knows the difference firsthand. As if to explain what brought her here, she moves the pictures of her children, 19-year-old Howard Hampton ("Hamp") and Mary-Margaret, 13, from the credenza behind her desk to the conference table at which she has been sitting.

Hamp was born much too slowly, on an autumn day in Little Rock. Rasco believes measures might have been taken during that difficult labor to help her baby, who was born with cerebral palsy and moderate mental retardation. "But I haven't dwelled on it because you go with what's presented," she says.

She didn't go with silent acceptance, though, instead showing a dogged determination that Hamp would grow up as independent as his physical and emotional limits would allow.

Along the way, Rasco acquired an education and a new career. "And as I began to learn about all the different agencies and entities you have to try to coordinate to raise a child like this," she says, "I became very interested in how we could better design systems to help children and families."

"With his birth," Rasco says of the sweet-faced Hamp, "I think it was pretty well set that I would take this kind of course."

Sure and Steady

That Carol Rasco landed high on the White House staff is due in part to an accident of birth of another sort altogether. She is an Arkansan, and her path and that of Bill Clinton first crossed there many years ago.

During the 1992 campaign, when she was one of the governor's top aides, Rasco in effect ran the state of Arkansas. "She kept the home fires burning but not raging out of control," says Bruce Reed, the campaign's issues director.

The Clintons and Rasco met in 1976 at a get-acquainted coffee when Bill was mounting his successful run for state attorney general and Rasco was spending her time taking care of Hamp. She had yet to begin her work with the Coalition for the Handicapped as an activist, lobbying the Arkansas legislature to provide education for disabled children and conducting workshops on how to assimilate them into the classroom.

"Even back then," Rasco says, "I was somewhat frustrated that there seemed to be two camps when it came to talking about promoting things in this country. You either talked about economic development or you talked about what some people called the 'warm, fuzzy' program issues. Even though I didn't have enough background on the economic side to know how to couch it, I felt there was a real connection there but that you had to talk about merging them. The Clintons could talk about that in a way that made both sides come together... ."

During his first term as governor, Clinton appointed her to a board overseeing community services and homes for the disabled. In his 1982 comeback bid for governor, she ran his campaign in politically critical Pulaski County. Clinton's success at the polls that November signaled a career turn for Rasco. Mary-Margaret was a healthy toddler in nursery school by then and Hamp could be entrusted partly to the care of others, so she went back to work full time.

Under Gov. Clinton, Arkansas became what William Galston, now one of Rasco's deputies, calls "the laboratory of federalism." Education programs and welfare reforms were tried out in the state and brought to the national stage through the National Governors' Association (NGA).

For seven years, Rasco was Clinton's liaison to the NGA and his point person when he was its chairman and also lead governor on welfare reform, child care and health care reform. Key elements of the NGA's 1987 welfare reform policy, designed to move recipients from dependence to self-sufficiency, later were incorporated into the 1988 Family Support Act.

Carol Rasco is given a lot of the credit for that success.

"Nobody had made changes in welfare legislation for 20 years, but she was committed to seeing those changes through," says NGA Executive Director Raymond C. Scheppach.

Arkansas Director of Human Services Tom Dalton, who was Little Rock city manager when he and Rasco worked together on a Youth at Risk project, sums up her strength: "She knows how to be politic without being political."

The President's Agenda

President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, with a quarter of a century of policy wonking behind them, were already their own domestic policy advisers when they arrived in Washington.

That left to Carol Rasco the role of, to use her words, the "facilitator," the "implementer," the "honest broker brought in to see that collaboration can occur" among various groups in and outside government. "Domestic policy is something that we are formulating here, but it is not something that we sit at this table and say, 'This is the design. Now here you are, federal government; do it.' "

Rasco leaves few fingerprints. "I tried not to make headlines" in Arkansas, Rasco says, and the same is true for Washington. "I don't want the personality to get in the way of the president."

Domestic Policy Council staff member Kathi Way, who also worked with Rasco on the governors' welfare task force, says, "Always understand, when Carol is carrying a torch on an issue she's doing it on behalf of the president. She does not run her own agenda, but she also has a real instinct as to what's important to the president."

While the pressing issue of health care reform is in her domain, the high-profile Ira Magaziner, who heads the staff of that task force, has grabbed much of the attention. Still, Rasco is one of the few people who see the whole picture of health care reform, Way says, and understand as well as Magaziner how all the pieces fit together. Rasco has been known to bristle at the suggestion that she defers to him. At a conference on rural health care in Little Rock this spring, a reporter remembers, Rasco's response to such a suggestion was "very pointed lest anyone in the room miss the fact that he reported to her."

So behind-the-scenes was Rasco in her work for Gov. Clinton that her appointment came as a surprise to journalists who had covered the presidential race and expected the job to go to Bruce Reed.

"She knows how the president works, thinks and what he wants to accomplish," says Reed, who at candidate Clinton's request regularly ran questions about health care and welfare reform past her. "She spent 10 years working with the guy. There is no substitute for that kind of experience."

William Galston concurs: "She is someone who was present at the creation of so many of his signature issues, someone who had been with him at every step of the way in bringing the ideas from Arkansas to national attention."

There is one other attribute that no one around the White House takes lightly. "The president," says White House Chief of Staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, "just has immense confidence in her."

Rasco says, "I believe President Clinton -- and Mrs. Clinton as well -- asked me to do this because they've worked with me over a number of years. They know I'm in tune with them, know how I operate, that we have many of the same outlooks on programs we believe need to be promoted. ... He understands that I'm very genuine in these things, that it's not something I just adopted from him."

Rasco's days begin around 6 a.m., according to White House intern Alfonso Lopez, who on one of his first days on the job arrived to find her getting off the elevator to escort him past West Wing guards.

President Clinton and Rasco meet daily for 15 minutes, and she distills for him the pros and cons of policy options. "It's an iterative process," Rasco says, using White House argot. "Very seldom in policy development do you say, 'Aha! We've got everything down on paper now. We're going in for a final answer.' "

Her management style is collegial and informal. She gathers her staff at morning meetings but also over brown-bag lunches or after-hours desserts.

Meetings always begin with laughter, but, associates say, the self-effacing Rasco is purposeful and insistent when defending a policy position. "Carol worked very hard to try to keep the family preservation program in the reconciliation bill as part of the budget," says an aide.

The Clinton domestic policy operation differs from others in that instead of the academic approach of filtering policy from top to bottom through think tanks, entrenched staff people and the ubiquitous Beltway consensus, Rasco urges her staff to think from the bottom up, starting with the individual.

In addition to health care, the staff is now concentrating on welfare reform, the anti-crime legislation proposed last week that would tighten gun controls, and the immigration initiative.

Immigration is one area in which policy must not lose sight of the individuals, Rasco emphasizes to her staff. "It's not strictly a matter of looking at our policy as regards people who are coming to this country. It's also looking at what is the purpose for which they are being brought to this country ... " she says of the boatloads of Chinese refugees.

"There's no way to generalize on issues involving human beings," she says. "I want to make sure we're not trying to use a recipe or formula approach to policy."

Shades of Hillary Rodham

Carol Rasco's proximity to the First Lady's office raises the inevitable, if waggish, image of her as the staff version of Hillary Clinton. And there are unmistakable similarities between them, products of what each has called the "ideal" American childhood.

Each grew up in a small town, on a tree-shaded street a few blocks from school. Each was the eldest of three children of a "traditional family," with a businessman father and a stay-at-home mother. Each was reared in the Methodist Church and had a favorite youth minister. Each took piano lessons, but unlike young Hillary Rodham, Carol Hampton enjoyed the piano and also played clarinet in the school band. (No, she and saxophonist Bill Clinton do not jam at private parties.) Each is an overachiever, highly organized -- "I don't deny that my sisters grew up calling me 'Bossy,' " says Rasco. And each is a workaholic. "People have accused me of that," she allows.

Rasco was born in 1948 in South Carolina, where her father was in pharmacy school, preparing himself to take over the family drugstore back in Arkansas. Rural and small though De Witt, Ark. (pop. 3,000), was, Barnes and Ruby Hampton made sure their girls grew up with an appreciation for the arts.

Big sister Carol skipped the 12th grade to enter Hendrix College in central Arkansas and later enrolled at the University of Arkansas. She started out as a drama major: "I often say some of the best training I ever got was all that drama training." She switched her major to education because she was interested in child psychology.

In 1969, she married architect Terry Rasco, also from De Witt. They went to the same church and lived a block and a half apart, but romance did not link their lives until Carol and Terry were in college. By then she also was interested in campus politics and supported a young man from Hope for student body president. "I'll always be grateful to her for that," says Mack McLarty.

She taught school for a couple of years, then went back for her master's degree and set up a psychological counseling program for the Bryant, Ark., public school system. She was working there when Hamp was born.

For the next few years, all of Rasco's energies were spent on Hamp's care. She soon realized the difficulties faced by families having to cope with similar problems but lacking the background in teaching and counseling that she had. Then too, she did not have to go back to work. "I was in a position to be able to work for Hamp. And that," she says, "made a difference in his life."

Such a difference, in fact, that this spring he was among the Hall High School graduating class in Little Rock, where he had earned a certificate of attendance and the honor of being one of four commencement speakers. "I want to thank my parents for having faith in me," he told 300 classmates and a few thousand others who stood and applauded.

A year ago, Hamp moved into a group home, a start in his transition toward a more independent life and a job. "He's always going to need some assistance," says his mother, "but fortunately we're beginning to recognize as a society those kinds of needs, and programs are developing that would help him."

If her work with Gov. Clinton taught her anything, it is that there is still a long way to go: "You could do training and education and help move a person along the track toward more independence and self-sufficiency," she says, "but what did you do about health care coverage?"

That's one of the questions Rasco will help the president's task force forge an answer to in the weeks ahead.

Priorities

One of the stories Carol Rasco likes to tell is of the rewards and regrets of juggling job and family. She recounts the time her daughter told her that Hamp would talk about making valentine cookies and how his mother would write the recipients' names on them. "I just wondered," Mary-Margaret said, "if it was the same mother."

"Sure, there are things you miss that can't be re-created for you," Rasco says. "You still pick your priorities and still do those things that absolutely matter most."

In the first six months, Rasco went back to Little Rock three times -- for her daughter's play, for her son's senior prom and for his graduation. The children and Terry Rasco visited her here once or twice. In between they communicated by fax ("We had a fax Christmas") or telephone. She went home recently for her son's latest operation, to correct his atrophied feet and to remove steel plates implanted in bone reconstruction surgery five years ago. This fall, Mary-Margaret will join her here and go to school in Alexandria.

Rasco says she has read so many conflicting theories about how working mothers are affecting American families that she thinks one of the dangers is trying to look at it in terms of "some overarching theme. ... There is no one thing to say -- kind of like I feel about policy." In her case, she says, she is certain of this:

"Both of my children have had a mother who was better for them because I was doing this kind of thing."