Check out her prim smile and the regal nod. Listen to this intelligent and reserved Midwesterner say how excited and encouraged she is about running for the U.S. Senate. And wonder:

Is Hillary Rodham Clinton really ready for this?

The thrashing murk of New York politics. The recreational mindlessness of the press. The 918 ethnic spokesmen who want to know her position--now, okay?!--on an undivided Jerusalem, a divided Kosovo and double-parking regulations in Astoria.

And, waiting downtown, Rudy the Sonic Bulldog.

"I don't have any reaction," the Republican mayor with the very sharp teeth tells a TV talking head. "When she actually moves in and starts paying taxes, then I'll react. . . . Happy Thanksgiving."

The Official Hillary Rodham Clinton Line is that she's oblivious to all this. In a carefully scripted spontaneous moment at the United Federation of Teachers this week, she decides to let drop that--yes yes yes--she's running for the Senate seat in New York. A state in which her next day as an official resident will be her first.

"I believe if we work together we really can make a difference . . . so the answer is yes!"

A roomful of teachers rise and clap and hoot, and this is the way her anointment is supposed to go . . . or maybe not.

Already, congenitally nervous Democrats worry that she's lost the aura that so attracted a weak party bereft of credible statewide candidates. Some had taken to casting a covetous eye at Bobby Kennedy Jr., a well-regarded environmentalist who lives north of New York City and is a scion of that family.

"Bobby was ready to run if Hillary didn't," says a knowledgeable Democratic Party operative. "He was looking into fund-raising last spring and was asking people if they would manage his campaign. He'd still consider it if Hillary didn't run."

It hasn't come to that. But somewhere between the breathless she's-landed-in-Utica! flavor of Clinton's first "listening tour" last July and this week's announcement that her marriage is about to go into commuter mode, the first lady's balloon has lost some helium.

It began with a not-unexpected slip or three by the novice pol. Her husband, the president, lets some radical advocates of Puerto Rican independence out of jail, and she, hesitantly, opposes the move. Oy! Every Puerto Rican spokesman north of San Juan denounces her.

Then she forgets she's a lifelong Cubs fan and dons a Yankees cap. Giuliani, who understands that team allegiances are pathological inheritances in New York, challenges her to a game of Yankees trivia. It's not a friendly offer.

Then Clinton flies off to Israel on an "official" White House excursion and makes the mistake--grievous for a wannabe New Yorker--of behaving diplomatically rather than viscerally. Suha Arafat lays down some charges about the lingering after-effects of Israeli tear gas on local Palestinians while Clinton sits in silence. She pauses after her speech to give Clinton a peck on the cheek.

The first lady is left to claim, lamely, that her interpreter had failed her.

Back in New York, Giuliani chortles. He would have had the right interpreter. He would have walked out. He would have arrested Arafat for jaywalking.

It all adds up to a headache and some bad poll numbers. The virally anti-Clinton New York Post runs a poll of questionable provenance, claiming that 53 percent of New Yorkers don't want the first lady to run for the Senate. And independent polls show her running six to nine points behind the mayor.

Now nervous Democratic chieftains have the shakes. State chairwoman Judith Hope wants the first lady to ditch her day job and become a full-time candidate. And New York City Councilwoman Ronnie Eldridge--whose husband, columnist Jimmy Breslin, is apoplectically anti-Clinton--has suggested that the first lady forget the whole thing and stay on Pennsylvania Avenue.

It's not like these Democrats grew up with this native of Illinois. No one's daughter got a job making change at the Throgs Neck Bridge because of her, and the large-waist-band guys at the Canarsie Democratic Club wouldn't know the lady from a hole in the wall.

They embraced Clinton for one reason: There was no one even remotely more huggable in sight. The Republicans control the mayor's office in New York City, the state Senate and the governor's office, and have the ideological momentum after three decades of Big Government liberalism.

Who else was there? Rep. Nita Lowey? State Assembly leader Shelly Silver? Puh-leeze. When Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo decided not to run, the Democrats' bench of name candidates was bare.

So retaining her winner's aura is everything for Clinton. And right now she's no shoo-in. She's a flat-voweled Midwestern WASP in a state that hasn't elected a white Protestant to statewide office since Nelson Rockefeller. A political novice in a state that prides itself on having no couth in matters of politics.

"She is still defining herself as she's trying to run against the toughest Republican in the state," says Bill Henning, a local labor official with the liberal Communication Workers of America. "It would be a lot more help if we treated her as another candidate instead of fawning all over her."

That said, more than a few New York Democrats may have succumbed to the worry vapors unnecessarily in recent days.

As the first lady demonstrated on the stump at the United Federation of Teachers, she is most adept at policy, moving with ease from homelessness to health care to schools. And it's not like she hasn't heard a tough question before.

Demand that she square her support of campaign finance reform with her campaign's reliance on so-called "soft money," and she spins artfully away, suggesting there's no honor to be found in unilateral disarmament. Ask about competency testing for teachers, which she supported in Arkansas but has remained mum about in New York, she does a that-was-there, this-is-here stutter step that tells you very little.

A reporter yells out: Whaddabout Rudy? Isn't this going to be a mud-wrestle?

She smiles beatifically. The difference between Kosovo and New York politics may be a faint degree or two of separation, but what's the percentage in saying so?

"Well, I hope not," she says. "I'm really hoping this campaign's going to be about issues, because that's what really counts."

As a tactic, unflappable calm has its virtues, not the least of which is its contrast to the mayor's more brusque manner. In the hurly-burly of the news conference, as reporters shout questions about her husband's sexual misdeeds and her own past statements and try their best to get her goat, a reporter can underline about six questions that would have caused Giuliani to stomp out of the room.

If Hizzoner remains the best mayor the suburbs ever had--as a percentage, his suburban poll numbers tend to arc in the mid-60s--he has never polled worse in the city he governs.

His recent sonic blasts--attempting to shut down an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and directing police officers to arrest homeless people found sleeping on the streets--have not amused New Yorkers. And city voters resoundingly defeated his attempt to jury-rig the city charter this fall, in part to prevent a despised Democrat from succeeding him should he win the Senate race.

So a strategy emerges. Take the city, which accounts for maybe 30 percent of the statewide vote, and Clinton hopes to hold her own upstate. And try and try again to prick the boil of the mayor's personality.

"Rudy has turned a personality flaw into a management style," says Mitchell Moss of New York University's Taub Urban Research Center. "Hillary has to turn that on him."

So, a day after her announcement, we find Clinton's phlegmatic campaign spokesman, Howard Wolfson, gamely trying to get a rise out of the mayor.

"The ball is in the mayor's court: Why won't he tell the people of New York whether he is running? Is he afraid to talk about all those national issues that he is trying to avoid?"

Now Wolfson's a pro, and the first lady is no naif when it comes to down and dirty campaigning. (Remember the "vast right-wing conspiracy?") But listening to the two Washingtonians rattle a poker at Giuliani is not unlike watching someone taunt a pit bull.

They're likely to get bitten.

CAPTION: Unlike her opponent Hillary Clinton is unflappable when questioned.

CAPTION: Close call: Suha Arafat gives Hillary Rodham Clinton a peck earlier this month in Israel.

CAPTION: Team player? The first lady in June with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.