The news conference had just begun when Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, slipped quietly into the press gallery and joined a bipartisan cluster of colleagues on the podium. The most celebrated and incendiary member of the United States Senate was eager to speak about a new bill aimed against bioterrorism. But she would wait her turn.

It was rather a long wait. First came the bill's sponsor, Ted Kennedy, a man whose name once evoked dynastic possibilities not unlike those that Hillary Clinton's carries now. She nodded affirmatively every couple of moments while Kennedy spoke, then leaned over to give a pat on the arm and whisper in his ear when he took his seat. Then came others who hold rank over a newly elected senator: Chris Dodd, Susan Collins, Barbara Mikulski, Mike DeWine, Evan Bayh, John Edwards. They all made their points as Clinton pursed her lips and nodded her head with exaggerated emphasis -- yes, yes, good point, how wise. A typical day on Capitol Hill affords her literally dozens of occasions to project soulful approval.

Finally, speaker number eight, came Clinton. And the person who has inspired more argument, more admiration and animus, than any other woman of her generation spoke about . . . "food safety provisions." Not enough has been done, she said, "and I think we are now taking some important steps to address that." There were ostentatious references to the adopted state she represents -- "greater security at facilities like Plum Island off the coast of Long

Island . . . I was up in Rochester and Syracuse, and I mostly talked with doctors, nurses, front-line responders" -- and she was done.

The appearance was parochial and prosaic in ways that her devotees find poetic: Hillary Clinton has earned the luxury of being boring. Or, more precisely, pretending to be. A woman whose past is shrouded in unanswered questions and whose

future is cloaked in unrevealed possibilities will remain interesting for a long time to come.

Her life now is spent in the Senate club, palling around with Democrats and working with surprising collegiality with the same Republicans who once reviled her and tried to evict her husband from office. She gives the speeches she wants to, no longer bowing to the West Wing political advisers who, when her husband was president, fretted that her presence was too hot. She power-walks around Capitol Hill from hearing to floor speech to news conference to reception, putting in 12- to 14-hour days, often with a cell phone planted to her ear. The New York reporters who follow her ask more often than not about financial aid for New York City, or even the federal Animal Disease Center on Plum Island, rather than about her marriage or her hair or her legal controversies. She constantly pays deference to Senate elders, saying she knows she's just one of a hundred. She chirps a singsongy "How are you?" to the tourists who regularly do double takes or stretch out their hands when they spot a celebrity, making plain that she is hardly just one of a hundred.

It is her husband, the former president, who still seems searching for the right role on the right stage. She, by contrast, is right where she wants to be.

Most of the time, anyway. If, say, 90 percent of her hours and psychic space is taken up by being "Senator Clinton," her words and deeds taken at face value, in the remaining 10 percent she is still "Hillary" -- with everything that means.

It means the National Enquirer cover in September, "HILLARY CHEATS ON BILL; How ex-Prez found out," or the rival Globe from March: "CLINTONS TO DIVORCE: INSIDE THE BITTER BUST-UP." It means the catcalls of surly firefighters and policemen at the VH1 relief concert in New York on October 20. They weren't booing Senator Clinton, who had been working nearly round the clock on disaster issues after September 11. They were booing Hillary: Down from the stage, lady! Who the hell do you think you are?

Slowly, and incompletely, she has answered that question more clearly over the course of the last year in the Senate than she did in the previous eight in the White House. Her greater comfort springs from greater confidence, which in turn springs, according to many people close to her, from a potent psychological source: liberation.

Thanks to a generous majority of Empire State voters, her influence no longer comes from her marriage. "She's gone from a completely derivative role to nonderivative role," says a former White House staff member who is close to her. "In Washington, 'first lady' has never really been taken that seriously. 'Senator' has. She's not trying to construct something from nothing."

Clinton does not put it quite like that, and is careful not to disparage the first lady's role. But, in an interview, she came close to endorsing the thesis. "Those years in the White House for me were extraordinary experiences; I'm really grateful for it. But the role itself is more of a vicarious responsibility in that you are, like everyone in the White House, there because of one person, the president. Everybody else is there at his sufferance," she said. "And this job I have now -- I'm representing the people of New York, but there's a lot more opportunity to express my own opinions, to work through what I would do and how I would do it."

One particular constituent, like her a newcomer to the state, is not only approving but vastly relieved. "To the extent she speaks for herself, and is directly accountable to the people of New York, it's got to be liberating for her," said Bill Clinton, during an interview for this article. After the turbulence of their White House tour, he surely has many reasons to feel relief at her contentedness now, but he reaches far back in their history to explain. In 1974, as he was getting ready to propose to her, he said, he was reluctant to ask her to move to Arkansas because she'd have to give up on elective politics herself. He thought then that she'd be good at it -- and, as it has turned out, "she's just as good as I thought she'd be."

Favorable reviews are coming from quarters far less inclined to charity. Last month the conservative New York Post, whose roastings of Hillary are a local specialty, summarized her first year with the headline: "Hill on the Hill: So Far, So Good." The article included a quote from Larry Craig of Idaho, one of the Senate's most conservative Republicans, who acknowledged he hardly ever agrees with Clinton but added: "She's had a successful year. It appears that she knows her job and does it well."

Still, she does not believe her opponents have laid down their weapons, nor is she laying down her own. Perhaps, an interviewer ventured, now that her influence flows from voters rather than her husband, the political forces she described in the opening days of the Monica Lewinsky scandal as a "vast right-wing conspiracy" may be ready for a truce.

"I don't know that it's a truce," she answered, with force. "It doesn't ever seem to end. If a couple days go by and they haven't heard anything they can talk about, they make something up. It never ends."

Pressed for examples, she declined. Perhaps she was talking about the criticism she got on talk radio and conservative Web sites for yawning and whispering to a colleague during President Bush's address to Congress after the September 11 attacks? "You know, a capital offense," she said, scoffing at the episode, which aides attributed to fatigue. "It's kind of a perverse form of flattery. That's how I kind of think about it, honestly."

Her husband said he too perceives an assault with no visible end. Of the many complicated bonds these two share, one is a mutual sense of besiegement. "As long as they're rewarded for attacking people personally, they'll do it," he said. "They raise money off of demonizing us, and now her. It's a very deliberate strategy."

Still, the former president believes Americans are slowly getting to know the person he has always known. "She's really a good person," he said. "It's hard to keep that under a basket forever."

It's a busy Saturday morning in New York, and a guy wearing a cowboy hat, boots, and nothing else but a loincloth is occupying his usual perch in the middle of Times Square. Sen. Clinton lets loose with a cheerful exclamation: "Hey, it's the Naked Cowboy!"

"He's here all the time," she says as we ride in a van navigating midtown traffic. Then, with a laugh: "You know, he's really kind of cute."

She has just delivered a speech to a mostly female group of labor activists, and is on her way to the second stop -- whatever that is. "Excuse me, but where are we going?" she asks her staff, the day already becoming a blur. She is going to meet with a group of theater industry workers to talk about rallying public support for the Broadway stage after September 11. She opens a briefing book, and drills into it intently for the next couple of minutes, then returns to conversation. Her words are punctuated with deep yawns. She confesses that she is moving through her days in a state of chronic exhaustion. Her plan upon arriving in the Senate was that she would work six days a week, but in recent months, nearly without exception, she has been working seven. "I can't do that," she says with a sigh. "I need a day off but I'm not getting it."

Still, she shows little inclination to say no to invitations. This day in New York she left her Westchester County home at 8:30 a.m. After the activists and theater workers, she will go to Brooklyn for a panel on terrorism, then back to Manhattan to meet with Dominican immigrants who lost relatives in the recent American Airlines crash; then to a drop-by at an Upper East Side apartment to meet with the visiting Philippines president; then downtown for a reunion party with her campaign staff; and finally a late book party dinner at historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s house for Churchill biographer Roy Jenkins, with actress Lauren Bacall and former ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith among the guests. Joined by her husband at the last two events, she will return home well after midnight.

During the reporting of this article, Clinton and her staff allowed me to shadow her for long parts of two full days, one in New York and one in Washington, and also scheduled a 30-minute interview that stretched well over an hour. The access alone is notable, given the austere distance at which she kept nearly all of us who covered the White House when she was

first lady. All through those years, when Hillary Clinton was generating such heat among her ideological foes and such mystification among the vast middle, her aides and other loyalists, just like her husband, sounded the same refrain: If people could only spend time around her, they would really like her.

It's true enough that a day with Clinton shows her in a kaleidoscopic display of lights -- most of them more appealing, or at least more natural, than the stagy, defensive image she often projected as first lady. She teases a staff member for ripping open a pack of tissues instead of using the zip seal ("Peter, you are such a boy!"), and complains that, as usual, she is the only person in her entourage who can't get cell phone reception ("I have a hex with these things"). To the delight of the union audience, she cracks wise when remarks by Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, delay her own: "You know, I'm used to waiting for presidents." In the van, conversation turns to the cascade of criticism that fell on her as first lady when she endorsed creation of a Palestinian state, a goal that is now official U.S. policy. She rolls her eyes dismissively, then adds drily, "Lots of people have changed their views over time." She finally gets the phone to work and tracks down a physician to learn the latest about the condition of a former White House valet who moved with them to Chappaqua and has been unexpectedly hospitalized. She keeps up an amiable banter about the exotic Gotham fauna out her window, of which the Naked Cowboy is only one specimen. And she sounds genuinely pleased and appreciative when she learns that her husband will make it back from Europe in time to attend the evening events with her. Against the stereotype of a scheming, messianic shrew, she projects a picture of good-humored normality.

But her surface congeniality can't obscure another truth: If those people who actively dislike Hillary Clinton could spend a day with her, they would surely find many of their preconceptions ratified. There is a reason why conservatives are skeptical that the carefully modulated centrist agenda on which she campaigned for senator is the genuine item. For while she invokes bipartisanship constantly, she becomes demonstrably more passionate when she is talking about the role of government as leveler, protector and moral agent.

Speaking of the loved ones of terrorist victims, her voice rises to a near-shout at her union speech: "I want to make sure we do everything -- everything -- to help families not only though charity but also through government!" On the ailing economy: "I believe that all the millions of Americans who didn't get those rebates from that tax cut that was way too large and is going to cause us problems for years, I believe you ought to have some additional help to go out and spend and get the economy moving." And on she goes, denouncing "billions of dollars of tax breaks for large corporations," touting her proposals for "more help for our public hospitals . . . public safety block grants [for localities] . . . extension of benefits for our laid-off and disabled workers" and a host of other ideas that make plain that her own husband's pronouncement that "the era of big government is over" was not necessarily the last word on the subject.

Statements like these drive Clinton's foes to distraction; they would be driven further still by the people to whom she gravitates -- people who share her instinct for preachment and a therapeutic brand of liberalism that is vitally concerned with personal attitudes and routines. In her book, It Takes a Village, Clinton's treatise on politics and child rearing included her guidelines for what size portions of meat to give children (about the size of a deck of cards). For her terrorism panels around the Empire State, she was accompanied by Irwin Redlener, a prominent New York pediatrician. In Brooklyn, what started as a discussion of public safety soon drifted, at Redlener's direction but with Clinton's head-nodding assent, into a lengthy sermon on parenting ("have fun with your children -- know when you need help," he urged) and grass-roots organizing ("be an activist, be a participant -- we need you not to be passive now").

Yes, Hillary Clinton is more personable than you might think. No, she is not the closet socialist of right-wing fantasy. But hers are the politics of prescription -- a world of problems that right-thinking people like her and Irwin Redlener are ready to solve -- that make her as restless for battle as her foes. The war over Hillary Clinton, the fact that her name continues to be the best drawing card in conservative fundraising literature, is not, after all, a big misunderstanding.

The joint meeting of the House and Senate education committees was dragging on and on and on. So the junior senator from New York sat and sat and sat. Many legislators darted in and out, but Clinton stayed put, listening and going through stacks of paper with her reading glasses on. Seated just to her left was Wayne Allard.

Who is he? He is a Republican veterinarian from Colorado elected to the Senate in 1996. To see the two of them side by side is a vivid reminder of the strategic quandary that faced Clinton after her victory in November 2000. In a profession that craves visibility, she probably has more by far than any other colleague. But she arrived bereft of institutional influence in a body that, even in a media-

driven age, runs by custom, seniority and personal relationships.

Hillary Clinton allowed herself an evening of private gloating on election night. "She was high that night," recalls one adviser who was with her. "She felt like she had taken on the bastards and beat them."

With characteristic discipline, she soon either brushed those feelings aside or submerged them from public view. The next several months were a conscientious exercise in humility, as Clinton went looking for all manner of scouts and mentors for a new journey. During the White House years, West Wing staffers who worked for her husband were known by her staff as the "White Boys," and she treated them with cool distance. Starting last winter, she called those same West Wingers, the ones with knowledge of the Senate, into the White House residence for skull

sessions. She quizzed people like then-White House chief of staff John Podesta, deputy chief Steve

Ricchetti and counselor Joel Johnson, all of whom had extensive experience around the Senate, on what she needed to know. Other veteran Washington hands from the Clinton orbit, like Hillary confidante Evelyn Lieberman and lobbyists Harold Ickes and Pat Griffin, were also consulted.

From this, she developed a plan for her year that was one part Jeeves and one part Machiavelli. The woman with a reputation for thinking she knew best would seek out senators, ask advice, show deference, on the theory that humility was the most direct path to influence, according to several people who spoke with her

at the time. "She knew she could be an 'outside senator' " -- that is, the kind who draws cameras and headlines -- "but she wanted to learn how to be an 'inside

senator,' " the kind that actually gets

legislation passed, according to a person she consulted with. Her long-range plan, says one informal adviser, was "to be a cross between Al D'Amato" -- known as New York's Pothole Senator for his attention to local issues and constituents -- "and Pat Moynihan," whose seat Clinton holds and who commanded a national stage when speaking on all manner of

domestic issues.

Though Clinton in the past has favored personal relationships and proven loyalty in assembling her staff, this time she turned to people with experience in the Senate, many of whom -- like chief of staff Tamera Luzzatto and communications aide Jim Kennedy -- she scarcely knew until her election.

She methodically identified targets of opportunity, according to people who helped in the planning. One of the most important was Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.), a man with a love for Senate history and a disdain for celebrity senators. Of Bill Clinton, he told the Charleston Daily Mail, "I didn't care for him; his lifestyle didn't match mine." But Byrd also happens to be the ranking Democrat and chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, which Hillary Clinton has told colleagues she is determined to win a seat on as she rises in seniority.

Byrd was one of the first senators she visited after her election. By accounts of both sides, he was left charmed and impressed by her apparent dedication. He has repeatedly praised Clinton as "a workhorse," and in Byrd's universe there is no greater compliment. "She played Byrd masterfully," says an adviser to Clinton. "If she had gotten on the wrong side of him, she would have spent years getting right."

There were other goals, stated explicitly during a series of planning sessions. One was to maintain decent relations with New York's senior senator, fellow Democrat Charles Schumer, an extraordinarily energetic legislator with a hunger for public attention that was sure to suffer in Clinton's glare. At a recent joint news conference, she and Schumer both started speaking simultaneously, both equally eager to answer a question about disaster funding for New York that had been posed to both of them. After several false starts, both their voices rising more insistently, Clinton rolled her eyes, smiled knowingly to some reporters, and let Schumer go first.

The broad strategy for the year, say people involved in the planning, required Clinton to stay focused principally on New York issues. She was not going to make grand statements on the universal rights of women, for instance, like she delivered in Beijing in 1995. The plan was to give no fuel to widespread public expectations about her tactics or ideology. "People thought, Here comes Hillary Clinton -- lefty bigfoot," says Ickes.

"There were obviously those who were skeptical and cynical and hostile," agrees Ted Kennedy. Her rebuttal, he adds, is "she's demonstrated real knowledge and capability, and a willingness to work and work hard."

Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Brooklyn Dem-ocrat, recalls a surreal early meeting with Clinton at a New York delegation breakfast when reporters and photographers arrived. "Hillary walks across the room -- and the cameras go click, click, click. Hillary pours herself coffee -- click, click, click. She sits down again -- click, click click," Weiner says. "It was a sign of what she was up against, and she knew it. There were a lot of people who wanted to say she was in too much of a hurry, and she didn't give them much to work with."

But sometimes they don't need much. A Clinton aide recalls how Sen. Allard and his staff lobbied to get her to cosponsor a ban on cockfighting, which Clinton happens to oppose. But Clinton's staff balked, knowing that the law of unintended consequences applies in more than usual measure to her. Finally she agreed to sign on with numerous other cosponsors. The New York Post's cover the next day sported a photo of Hillary, looking as though she had escaped from an asylum, beside a headline that blared "COCK-A-MAMIE" -- implying she'd run for Senate to pursue a bizarre obsession with roosters.

In the White House years, Hillary Clinton was often in foul, snappish moods during overseas trips with her husband, according to some West Wing aides; she hated being dragged through official schedules in a supporting, ceremonial role. Once, in Australia, her frustration bubbled over before a women's group when she noted caustically that the only way for a first lady to avoid controversy was "to have a bag over your head when you come out into public or in some way to make it clear you have no opinions and no ideas about anything and will never express them publicly or privately."

She wears no bag these days. On the other hand, unlike the many roles and forums that were hers as first lady, her life is one-dimensional: She is a senator, and not much else.

When she is in Washington -- usually three or four nights during the week, but sometimes on weekends, too -- she rarely goes out. There was a splash when the Clintons bought a $2.85 million house with 4,700 square feet on Whitehaven Street NW, near the Naval Observatory, an apparent signal that the couple that had so often been at odds with establishment Washington were ready to become society denizens. In fact, they are spectral figures.

What socializing there is tends to

be work-related. Once or twice a month she will throw a fundraiser at the house, with several dozen guests paying up to $25,000 for her company. The money goes to the Democratic National Committee or HillPac, which has so far raised more than $1.3 million.

There was a shower for a Senate colleague, Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, when she adopted a baby. Once a month, the 13 women of the Senate caucus meet over dinner, usually at a Capitol Hill restaurant like the Monocle. Socially, Clinton seems more oriented to New York than Washington. At a recent appearance in Manhattan she dropped a reference to "my good friend Oscar de la Renta."

For her part, Clinton said she has virtually no social life at all: "I mostly vote and go to hearings and give speeches." When in Washington, she leaves the office between 8 and 10 p.m. A small security detail, which includes both Secret Service agents and Capitol police, drives her to work each morning around 8:30. She usually holds a conference call with staff on the ride in. This appetite for toil causes some friends to venture into the kind of psycho-theorizing that so irritates both Clintons. "She's always had this kind of missionary zeal about work," says

one. "It makes you wonder, What is she

running from?"

But most confidantes describe someone enthralled with her position. "In her heart of hearts, she's a policy wonk, and she loves going to and from committee meetings," says Patti Solis Doyle, who has been with her for 10 years and now runs HillPac. "She seems really happy."

Within this busy life, Bill Clinton is a welcome part whenever they both can find the time, according to both of them. He says they aim to be together four nights a week, with him coming to Washington one night during the workweek. But even her loyalists call this a fantasy, given their travel schedules. "He's not here very often," says one Hillary Clinton aide who offers a slightly odd affirmation that the romance is genuine: "Her scheduler stays in contact with his scheduler."

The former president said he tries to be for her what she was for him during the first 25 years of their partnership. "We've just sort of reversed roles," he said. Since it was never entirely clear what her role was for him -- and was often deliberately obscured -- this explanation does not illuminate much. She said he can't help but edit her speeches, such as a big address she gave last summer to the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Lately, she has had a heavy, though unpublicized, influence on the staffing of his post-presidential office in Harlem, helping nudge out his former top aide and installing Maggie Williams, formerly her own chief of staff. Evelyn Lieberman, who essentially served as Hillary Clinton's eyes and ears in the West Wing during the White House years, recently arrived as a consultant in New York, helping organize his office.

For his part, Bill Clinton said he passes on interesting things he has read, and presses particular ideas he feels he knows about -- such as urging her to include tax incentives for business development in an aid package for New York City after the terrorist attacks. But he quickly added that he doesn't propose or write legislation: "I don't get into her business." Mostly, he said, "I try to help her get rest and be in a good frame of mind. In politics your biggest mistakes come when you are tired and you make bad judgments, become weak of spirit."

A certain bad judgment he made concerning a now-famous female intern during the White House years, with the painful impeachment ordeal that followed, is one reason many outsiders assume their marriage is a pretense, a professional convenience. But few people close to either of them endorse that view. By the reckoning of these well-informed observers, work is indeed what keeps them together, but not as an "arrangement." Politics and policy, instead, are the heat of the relationship, the source of mutual attraction. "They love the same things," says one former White House adviser close to her. "I think they both believe the [other] person is the smartest in the world. And when it comes to politics they basically think only the two of them really understand the complexities of what's going on."

It might not be a conventional partnership, but by all outward evidence it is now a comfortable one. Comfort, in fact, seemed to define Hillary Clinton's life

by the end of last summer. She had independence in a career she coveted, mutual

dependence in a marriage mended from the humiliations of scandal, a certain order and trajectory to her ambitions and

personal life.

Then came September 11.

She was just arriving at her congressional office when Capitol police ordered people to clear out. Secret Service agents were driving her away when, by happenstance, she saw one of her husband's

former aides, economics adviser Gene Sperling. "Gene, get in the car," she called, and they raced off together in the vehicle. Sperling recalls listening to the radio as Clinton frantically worked her cell phone, the magnitude of the event sinking in on different levels. She was a mother one moment, trying to get word on her daughter, Chelsea, then in New York. She was a senator the next, trying to get federal emergency management officials to learn about their response plans. And she was a citizen, as bewildered as everyone else by the hellish scenario unfolding.

"It was like watching her move back and forth from each role in her life minute by minute," Sperling recalls. "Then suddenly, the radio announcer starts screaming, 'Oh my God, the World Trade Tower has collapsed, oh my God, the World Trade Tower has collapsed,' and suddenly the whole world came to a stop."

When it started again, after that frozen moment, the world was a markedly different place. So, too, was Clinton's place in it.

Just as September 11 refashioned George W. Bush as president, so too has it refashioned Clinton as senator. The fact that the devastation was in New York gave her an unquestioned role in the national response to the tragedy. Even those who regard Clinton as a grandstander, most of them anyway, had to accept at face value her appearances with relatives of the

victims, and the prominent role she has taken in the campaign by the New York congressional delegation to win a larger share of federal disaster aid for the state. And for Clinton, who spent much of

her time as first lady feeling she had fewer responsibilities than she wanted, September 11 imposed burdens that have pushed her close to a physical and emotional breaking point.

"I feel like I'm drowning in tragedy," Clinton said plaintively, moments after meeting with family members of Dominican immigrants who lost loved ones in the November 12 crash of an American Airlines jetliner headed for Santo Domingo. Of the schedule imposed on her in the wake of September 11, she said, "I have this constant sense of falling behind."

"The heartbreak of it was almost too much for her," recalled Bill Clinton. "She's tough, but she's also incredibly human."

The policy agenda Clinton has pursued since the attacks has shined a revealing light on her tactics and values. She, Schumer and the rest of the New York congressional delegation made it a priority to get a full $20 billion in disaster funding for New York this year, but they came up short, instead winning an appropriation of $11.1 billion. Afterward, Clinton did the obvious political thing: She declared this an impressive victory for New Yorkers.

Of course, the obvious tactic was not always so obvious to her. As first lady, Clinton resisted appeals to strike a half-a-loaf compromise when she was leading the effort on health care reform. The all-or-nothing strategy left her with nothing, save for a bitter lesson. "The lesson they both learned from health care is that you never walk away from the table with nothing," says a political adviser.

Clinton acknowledged that the health care defeat has informed her current tolerance for incrementalism. "I think it is the nature of our system, with all these checks and balances and the way the Senate is set up, it requires that," she said.

But even Bill Clinton said his greatest surprise is the way his wife has accommodated to "the legislative style," learning how "to push the rock up the hill" bit by bit.

Yet a change in style does not mean a change in values. More than anything, Hillary Clinton found in September 11 new validation for old beliefs. Her abiding fascination with gender roles and differences -- and in particular a belief in the

ennobling ability of women to focus on the truly essential -- fastened on a particular dimension of the tragedy. "I thought it was interesting," she said as she rode between events in New York, "the first thing men ask about this is, 'If I had been on that plane in Pennsylvania, would I have been willing to fight the hijackers?' The first thing women ask is, 'What does this mean for my family? Will my family be okay?' "

She also believes September 11 moved the national consensus about government's role closer to the one she has espoused all her adult life. "I think there are certain common needs that can only be addressed by government, which now people really understand and recognize," she said. "And the anti-government mantra has obviously quieted down in the face of our security challenges at home and abroad. So I think it's had a balancing effect, putting things in more of a perspective, which is always important."

The interviewer, Victor Gomez, is known in his native land as "the Larry King of the Dominican Republic." And there is a certain similarity to his interviewing style. "In my country, we love you," he assures his subject. "But I have one question: Will you run as the first woman for president?"

Here is a question that sends Hillary Clinton back into the stilted talking points of her years as first lady. "I do not plan on doing that," she says robotically. "I'm very happy being the senator from New York."

Probably the most genuine answer Clinton could have given to that question would have been, "We shall see, won't we?" That's a bit more candor than she seems to feel she can afford. Still, she gets the question constantly, and it always evokes the same response. A woman of epic ambition, who would surely not be senator from New York were she not possessed of surpassing confidence in her own abilities and metallic indifference to those with a lower assessment, must pretend that the idea of higher office is the most fanciful notion she has ever heard.

It is in fact beyond plausible speculation that she would run in 2004. She promised New York voters repeatedly last year that she wouldn't. While her husband once broke a similar vow in Arkansas, that was a state he had served for more than a decade, where people knew him and his ambitions well. Hillary Clinton issued her pledge in a state where she was a total outsider, helping to address one of the electorate's principal reservations about her motives for running. By the same token, some of those closest to her say privately they believe she would strongly consider running in 2008 if a Democrat is not elected next time around.

There is a parlor game quality to the exercise of imagining Clinton's future. One could imagine her following in the footsteps of Robert Kennedy -- she holds the seat he once did, and there are two photographs of him in her Russell Building office -- who used the Senate as a staging area for a planned restoration at the White House.

Yet if she were to do so, the relative peace she enjoys now -- the quieted guns on the right, the media spotlight that lately has focused more on her policies than on her marriage -- would almost surely come to a crashing end.

Take it from someone who knows. Grover Norquist, one of Washington's leading conservative activists and mobilizers, says Republican senators now feel free to work with and even say nice things about Clinton because "at the moment she's not a threat; she's no longer whispering things in the president's ear." If she ever ran for president, he adds, all the old controversies -- over health care, over cattle futures, over Whitewater -- "would come flaming back."

She may not care -- or might even at some level welcome it. "You could make that argument about her running for the Senate, too -- why does she need it?" notes Al From, the founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, of which Hillary Clinton is a member. "She definitely has the skill level and the talent level to be at the top. The ability to take punishment is not going to be the inhibitor."

The choice may not be entirely hers. One could easily see her trajectory following not Bobby Kennedy's but Ted's. Once presidential ambition was beaten from him in an ill-considered run in 1980, he contented himself with the Senate, now his home of nearly four decades. A lightning rod to many in the public at large, Kennedy is a nimble and commanding figure within the institution. Clinton, representing a liberal state where she might reasonably be reelected for years to come, might well decide that it is more satisfying to emulate Teddy's feat than

to dive back into the cauldron of presidential politics.

This is in fact the course that Ted Kennedy himself predicts she will travel. "This is her public service," he says of the Senate. "I'd be very surprised if it went the other way."

The questions about her future, however absorbing, are ultimately imponderable, even to her. A related question is more pressing: What will Hillary Clinton say about her past? She holds an $8 million advance from Simon & Schuster to say something interesting about it. The contract was reached at the end of 2000, just days before she took office and Senate ethics rules would have barred her from signing. It was remarkable because the publisher agreed to the deal with no written book proposal from the author. Publishers were invited to the White House for conversations about what she had in mind -- discussions that reportedly were notable for their discretion. "Vince Foster's name came up, Monica Lewinsky's did not," says an editor for a publishing house that ultimately chose not to bid on the book. "There is a certain reluctance to ask a first lady the question: What in this book is going to earn $8 million?"

Amid her Senate duties, the question is echoing for Clinton now, say people close to her. She works on the book, due out next year, late into the evening. The proj-ect is a considerable psychic burden: A woman who deplored what she regarded as prurient invasions of her own privacy must now decide how much of herself to reveal. More broadly, she must decide what to make of her White House years and the mixed record they produced.

In our interview, a conversation about her news media relations during those years -- how come she was so frequently inaccessible? -- swerved into a general discussion of her frustration over how she was perceived by the public and, she believes, targeted by political foes. "I learned early on there was no way I could extricate myself or spend the energy" in rebutting allegations she thought were unfair, Clinton said. "And the interest was constant, persistent, and anything I had to say was just drowned out. What was the point? I just concluded there wasn't any. Maybe there could have been another way around it, but, gosh, given the relentless drumbeat, I don't know what it was. I couldn't figure it out."

If Hillary Clinton's future remains unrevealed and her past remains unresolved, what then of her present? Here the most interesting questions revolve around issues of conscience and compromise.

She is in the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem in late December, sitting on a panel hosted by the Brookings Institution about President Bush's call for faith-based social programs, when she quotes from the Epistle of James in the New Testament. "Faith without works is dead," she recites, then adds her own paraphrase, "but work without faith is hard."

This lifelong Methodist is at ease with both the rituals and language of the Christian calling. Do not underestimate her sense of duty, say people close to her, in understanding her tolerance during hard patches of her marriage. Do not underestimate the sense of mission she brings to her public life.

But it doesn't do much good to have noble aims if the other side beats you on the field -- which helps explain a paradox in her politics. At one level, she is the most combative of politicians. And, while her positions do not always fit neatly into a liberal mold, she is plainly driven by a sense of mission about government's proper role that at times takes on a nearly religious hue. Yet she is also entirely at ease with the modern brand of politics, pragmatic at its core, in which polling and issue positioning are used relentlessly to ensure that

Democrats don't get done in by their views -- even if they sometimes end up sounding like Republicans in the process. Among her lead advisers remains Mark Penn, a pollster who is mistrusted by more-partisan Democrats but was an architect of the reinvention of Bill Clinton's presidency on centrist themes after Republicans took control of Congress in 1994.

During our drive around New York, the conversation turned to a flap then in the news about how some Democratic consultants -- including Doug Schoen, Penn's partner, and Bill Knapp, who was an adviser to Bill Clinton -- had jumped ship to work for Michael Bloomberg, the victorious Republican mayoral candidate. Hillary Clinton dismissed the fuss as "ridiculous."

"They are consultants," she said, unbothered by the notion that people who crafted ads for Democrats in one campaign had turned to crafting ads to beat them the next. "That's like saying you should have Democratic doctors and Dem-ocratic lawyers."

Clinton's colleagues say they are still learning what to make of her blend of combativeness and pragmatism. "She's much more partisan than she sounds in public," says one New York politician.

He recalls discussing the scheduling of a news conference, raising concerns that then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani would upstage the event with one of his own. "Giuliani will screw you every time," Clinton rasped, at a time when she was publicly enthusing over the mayor's leadership. It was, this person recalls, as if Clinton were eager to show him she could be as savvy and tough-talking as any New York pol.

A Democratic senator recalls a retreat with the party's Senate caucus at which several senators talked about how the party's position on gun control was killing Democrats, especially in rural states, and urged a retreat. Clinton, the senator recalls, stood up, urging her colleagues to keep their positions but change their language to be less inflammatory to swing voters. Citing her husband's experience, she implored, "There's a way to talk about this to make the point and stay consistent with principle."

In our interview, Clinton acknowledged that many people are confused by her politics and offered a defense of the "new Democrat" policies her husband fashioned, but in language that he would never have used in public. Hillary Clinton's word is "equipoise" -- the kind of sublime balance among competing pressures that she says all individuals and societies must try to achieve.

But what does equipoise mean for a senator? "I grew up in a very Republican home -- child of 1950s and '60s suburbs," she said. "I have a rock-solid belief in individual responsibility and hard work. But I also believe in community. I reject the idea that there is no such thing as society" -- a precept she said also comes "from my religious faith and upbringing." It is something the founders appreciated, she said, with "their almost brutally realistic understanding of human nature, where you have to rein and constrain our appetites."

But the abstract soon returned to the concrete, piercingly. Under President Bush's tax cut and other policies, she said, "under the rubric of individual responsibility, you are basically having an enormous amount of benefit and privilege given to large moneyed interests." She quickly added, "I have nothing against large moneyed interests; I'm all for them." But, in cases like the Enron energy company, where executives made millions while workers' fortunes tumbled, society has fallen "out of balance" in a way that "frays trust" that American life is on the level. The concept of equipoise, she said, transcends partisan divides but offers "lots of opportunities to put together a different kind of political response."

"I go back to that word balance," she said. "To me it all makes sense."

For now, Hillary Clinton has the time she needs to find out if it all makes sense to others as well.

John F. Harris, who covered the White House for The Post for six years, is on leave at the Brookings Institution to write a book about the Clinton presidency. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article at 1 p.m. Monday on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.