PEOPLE WHO run for public office trade on celebrity, relationships, wealth and other such attributes all the time. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who today formally opens an exploratory campaign to succeed retiring Daniel Patrick Moynihan as senator from New York, is hardly disqualified by virtue of being the president's wife. This, after all, is a year in which candidates named Bush and Dole are seeking the Republican presidential nomination, while a relatively junior congressman named Kennedy is head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, etc., etc. The three, and others you can name, are personages in their own right, but plainly that is true of Mrs. Clinton as well.

She faces the charge of carpetbagging. By no stretch can she be called a New Yorker, and the jokes already abound. But that's an issue for the voters of New York -- and were she elected, she would hardly be the first successful carpetbagger, either. New York once had a senator named Kennedy, while Arkansas and West Virginia had governors named Rockefeller; the latter has gone on to the Senate.

The issue for Mrs. Clinton is not whether her position will be a factor, assuming she decides to run. It is part of who she is; it will help her in some respects, hurt her in others. The issue is whether she abuses her position. In part the question is akin to the one faced by incumbents running for office, including Vice President Gore as he runs for president. When are trips official, when political, how do you tell the difference and who pays?

Up to now, she's been flying to New York on an Air Force plane. Not fair, Republicans say, and they have a point. It will be an abuse if she uses White House resources to defray campaign costs. Likewise, she will abuse her position if she seeks to tilt administration policy to benefit her campaign. She attended a meeting the other day on Medicare reimbursement of teaching hospitals, of which there are many in New York. Nationally, these hospitals say they are being unfairly squeezed; they seek an easing of a cut imposed as part of the balanced budget act two years ago. Mrs. Clinton is hardly a stranger to health care issues, and we suppose it's as fair for her to make her presence felt on this as on any other. But she crosses a line if it looks as if she is pulling a string for the sake of her senatorial aspirations. One of the standards for judging her candidacy will be how fastidious she is in juggling, and separating, her two roles.