The first lady is on the set! With her blond crown of hair and dark blue pantsuit and the practiced Mona Lisa smile that, here and there, flashes megawatt. Fifty camera shutters click like crazed crickets, guests applaud, a hundred reporters jostle for a glimpse, she bids everyone to sit, and Hillary Rodham Clinton goes . . .

Deep wonk.

A half-hour passes. She's talking "auditory learners" and "belief systems" and "learning cycles," tossing out enough education acronyms to set a superintendent's heart to fluttering. Someone mentions pre-kindergarten. She nods eagerly and replies.

" . . . we know from the most recent research on the brain . . . "

A professor here at the state college talks high-speed Internet hookups in rural New York.

"So your analogy would be to the impact of rural electrification [on Depression-era America]?" Clinton says. "That's verrrrrrry interesting. Would you mind writing up something for me?"

Another speaks of reaching poor children at home.

"I am a big fan of the home visitation programs," the first lady responds, "that actually were pioneered"--watch this; has she done her homework or what?--"in Elmira, New York."

This is the Good Student as Senate Candidate, straight-A Hillary with pen in hand and note pad in lap. Her multi-month seminar--the Effect of New York Senate Races on Personal Growth: A Cognitive Listening Tour--is in full swing. And she's trying on a new skin: That of Democratic Senate candidate in New York.

A state where, it just so happens, she has yet to pass a day as a permanent resident.

And yet . . .

You come to the end of a couple of days bouncing along on a campaign bus, watching her wow and inflame, and you're stuck with the fundamental Hillary puzzle: Who is this most impressive and opaque woman?

Her husband, the president, is a man with a personality long ago turned inside out. His ego and id are so out there as to be the stuff of barroom laughs. Not Hillary. The lake of her personality runs smooth and deep, its floor rarely glimpsed.

So pundits and reporters, enemies and friends and the voters who live with the travails of the first couple impose their own cartwheeling narratives. She's his victim. She's his consigliere. She's happiest as mommy talking civics at the kitchen table. She's a sharpie lawyer who made a killing on the futures market. She's a 1960s political Passionara. She's the Machiavelli who convinced her husband to sign the welfare bill and so save his presidency.

Eleanor Roosevelt; Lady Di. Fact and fantasy spun into one.

So you mine her comments for hints of what's not said. An allusion to the political wounds of her early White House years, a joke about how little New Yorkers know of her. Even as she elides questions about her private life, she and her aides acknowledge two facts:

That the president owes his rise in the polls, in some measure, to her willingness to play the long-suffering wife in the Clintons' epic soap opera. And that retail politics in America is about the selling of self, no less than policy.

So Hillary Clinton stands alongside a green farm field and frames the questions, if not yet the answers:

"Why the Senate? Why New York? Why me?"

The Media Phalanx

The sight would be enough to send even a modestly neurotic person running for cover in the haystacks: Hillary Clinton walks along a sun-dappled valley road doing the aspiring pol stroll in the company of the Wise Old Senator. And what lies immediately to their left?

A 150-yard-long phalanx of over-caffeinated reporters and photographers and TV talking heads and camera crews--31 crews in all--going slightly nuts. They're passing the time waiting for her arrival by endlessly interviewing each other, endlessly asking the same questions of her prematurely stoop-shouldered press secretary, and doing their best imitation of reporters dancing on the head of a pen:

Is it Pindar's Corners or Pindars Corners? Is it an incorporated or unincorporated hamlet? We need to know, y'know!

Or maybe not.

It all stops as the first lady walks over with Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the man she hopes to replace if New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani doesn't kick her to the curb first.

Clinton is not her husband's equal as a politician; who is? Her eyes don't well with tears on command. She doesn't slap too many backs, and her smile connotes friendly curiosity rather than furnace-generating empathy.

But her political moves, the long handshake with the free hand patting on top, the eye contact, the ability to give a "that's the most fascinating thing I've ever heard" look, are a good bit of shake 'n' bake.

And she's a game player. By most accounts, she looks on the press with the tender regard that a pigeon harbors for the hawk; there is no commonality of interest. But this day she pastes a fairly believable smile on her face and stands in the sun and fields the shouted questions. This Midwestern Methodist with the ramrod posture even embraces the possibility that, yes, she might have a bit of chutzpah.

"I'm told that characteristic is not all bad in New York," she says.

So far, so good in the political fun house. But in the days to come, her campaign starts getting rather complicated rather quickly.

There's the Bill question. How to claim credit for Clinton administration accomplishments even as she tries to distance herself from the not unreasonable assumption that she's a policy surrogate for her husband?

After all, as Bill Clinton used to say in 1992: "Buy one, get one free."

Okay. But now you sense that perhaps she never really embraced the let-a-thousand-baby-steps-bloom approach that characterizes the president's last four years. The woman who only six years ago inveighed against the "sleeping sickness" of the American soul and who once acknowledged that she was striving toward a unified field theory of life now seems to yearn for a return to a grand project.

She tried this once before, pumping helium into a vast and secretly conceived health plan only to watch it plummet to earth. Now she's affected the air of a chastened policy wonk, assuring one and all that she hails from "the school of smaller steps." Then she gets to Cooperstown and does the listening thing with three dozen doctors and nurses. Soon, she's promising to attack profiteering drug companies and to insure the uninsured and look into long-term mental health care.

"We got off track somehow. . . . We can't ignore the many problems in health care and pretend they will go away."

And twice she seems to talk of her husband as a gardener when what the nation needs is an arborist. So she supports her husband's proposal for a "patient's bill of rights." And adds, pointedly: "Even that is a diversion."

Only the issue of how her candidacy affects Vice President Gore seems easy: For the moment, she's forgotten his name. In two days on the trail, his name does not pass her lips in public, not once.

'She Doesn't Belong Here'

Bea Proper of South Valley is talking politics and men and that lady.

"She doesn't belong here. She's not from here. Most of us wouldn't stand by our man if he did what Bill did. My man, let me tell you, he'd be walking funny if he tried to get away with something like that."

Okay, so Proper says she's never been a Hillary fan. And a couple of other women give her a hard time. ("Ahhhh, come on, men are men. I'd stand by mine because he can't help himself," says Amanda Tippet, a 39-year-old cashier at a local store.)

But the fact is that the women are waiting, shoulder to shoulder, in the broad shade of an oak with about 400 other Cooperstown residents, waiting to give the first lady a little cheer as she passes by.

It's a little disorienting, this Hillary mania. You travel the daunting and achingly beautiful expanses of Upstate New York, through Edward Hopperesque towns long past the elegant bloom of their youth, you see crowds waiting for the first lady and hear a lot of cheering. And you have no idea how that translates into votes. Three men at her Oneonta event like her, think she's real brainy--and plan to vote for Rudy Giuliani, thank you.

Then you come to Utica, another of those hard-times cities that are leaking jobs and population, and find Joe Giambrone. Strong face, snow-white hair, he's watching Clinton walk into a local senior center. Some of his neighbors are hooting, telling her to go home. But a lot more are cheering pretty loudly.

"I'm a Republican, but I'm going to vote for her because I feel she's a great humanitarian," he says. "We were all rooting for her during that stuff with her husband. That took a lot of guts, and as far as anything else, I don't know from it."

Who knows how party and gender cuts? If her beliefs are as liberal as some of her Democratic supporters fervently hope, it's not like that will make her a shoo-in in a state with a Republican governor and a Republican mayor of its largest city.

So maybe her strength is the unexpected resonance that comes from watching this woman, whom so many people seem to know without knowing, try to step out of her husband's shadow. A woman whose use of the most prosaic pronouns and phrases --"we" . . . "my husband" . . . "the president"--is shadowed by unspoken clouds.

It's not a political card she's enamored of playing. In fact she goes to some pains to dismiss the notion of her pain.

A reporter in that field in Pindars Corners shouts the question: Why? Why run for public office after all you've been through?

She shakes her head. They don't get it. "Well, I've actually enjoyed my time in the White House, even if that's hard for some to believe. . . . There are issues I care deeply about."

CAPTION: From left, at a senior center in Utica; on campus in Oneonta; listening to health professionals in Cooperstown.

CAPTION: In appropriately named Clinton, N.Y., Gilda Mazzura, 92, hugs the first lady during her "Listening Tour" of the state.

CAPTION: Protesters make their sentiments known outside a senior center in Utica.