CHICAGO, MARCH 16 -- On the sidewalk outside the Busy Bee restaurant this morning, Hillary Clinton stood surrounded by reporters -- defiant, feisty and, she said, confused.

Through two months of adversity this winter, she never flinched, defending her husband in the face of charges of infidelity and evading the draft. Juggling career, family and political ambition, she seemed to embody a new generation of political spouse. But today she seemed unsure of herself as she answered questions about her role as a partner in Arkansas's biggest law firm and denied that she had benefited from the fact that her husband Bill is the state's governor.

"I must say that the events of the last week have certainly raised a lot of questions . . . for me, and I haven't sat down and focused on it," she told a reporter who had asked her if she would practice law if her husband were elected president. "Right now I'm a little confused about what the rules are."

Last summer, as her husband was in the final stages of deciding whether he would run for president, the 44-year-old Yale Law School graduate acknowledged in an interview that the American people might not be ready for a woman who had her own high-powered career. She had been studying Marilyn Quayle, she said, like herself a lawyer, but one who had never practiced -- in deference to her husband's political career. That seemed unacceptable to her.

On Sunday night, the "new generation" woman and her career became issues in the campaign when former California governor Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. accused Clinton during a televised debate of funneling state business to his wife's law firm. Clinton angrily denied it. Today, on the eve of the Illinois and Michigan primaries, Brown not only did not let up on the charges, but accused the Democratic front-runner of "hiding behind his wife" in defending himself against charges of "bush-league cronyism."

"Just like Nixon, he brought out Pat and talked about the cloth coat," Brown said in Hamtramck, Mich., referring to Richard M. Nixon's legendary 1952 "Checkers" speech in which he cited his wife while fending off charges of impropriety. "It's a diversion. There's only one issue here: It's Mr. Clinton and his electability and what we are going to do about this scandal-a-week."

The Arkansas governor returned the fire as he moved on from Chicago to appearances in several Michigan cities, dismissing Brown's charges as "absolutely false" and a "typical thing to say {by} a person who doesn't respect the fact that women can have their own world and do their own jobs."

"When Governor Brown attacked my wife . . . I thought he should have been ashamed of himself and that's why I stood up for her," Clinton told students at Wayne Memorial High School near Detroit. "If he does it again, I'll stick it to him again."

Brown based his accusation Sunday on a story published that day in The Washington Post. The story described the relationship between the Rose law firm where Hillary Clinton works and the Arkansas state government, including the firm's lucrative work as bond counsel for state agencies, and its representation of private business clients who are regulated by the state. The story did not suggest that Clinton had personally directed any state business to the firm.

Bill Clinton said "it was really insulting and . . . unfair" that Brown had "misrepresented the Washington Post article." Hillary Clinton described the former governor, more in sorrow than anger, as "sort of desperate and sad."

Her aides were tugging on her to leave, to join her husband and the voters, safely behind the flimsy rope line that forms the barrier between candidate and press. But she stood and talked.

"Every time Bill Clinton gets ahead, the people who are running against him attack him," she said, "and I think that's because the issues of this campaign really will cause changes in this country . . . . I know what's happening because I'm out there, and I don't think a lot of the people who are making decisions and forming opinions and running against my husband understand what's at stake."

Hillary Clinton said the dispute over her professional life in Little Rock "is the sort of thing that happens to women who have their own careers." Asked if there was an appearance of impropriety in the law firm's relationship with the state government, she replied -- the defiant feminist -- with a comment that caused aides to shudder:

"I suppose I could have stayed home, baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life."

Moments later, she was the more politically correct voice of professional women. "You know," she said, "the work that I've done as a professional, as a public advocate, has been aimed in part to assure that women can make the choices that they should make -- whether it's full-time career, full-time motherhood, some combination, depending upon what stage of life they are at -- and I think that is still difficult for people to understand right now, that it is a generational change."

But what clearly bothered her as she stood on the sidewalk in the cold air was the suggestion of impropriety, both because of her involvement as a lawyer for a savings and loan owned by someone she and her husband owned property with and more broadly because of her partnership in the Rose law firm.

Hillary Clinton has said in the past that she did not represent clients before the state government and that she has made it a habit of declining her share of the firm's fees from such cases.

"As far as I know I'm the only lawyer related to a public official that I'm aware of in the country who had actively practiced law who has never even shared in a penny of state funds that have ever gone to my firm," she said. "I thought that was above and beyond the call . . . . From my perspective I've done what I thought at the time was absolutely appropriate and beyond what I thought anybody else had done that I was aware of. So I'm going to have to really think through what the rules are, because right now I'm confused."

And then, lest anyone think the controversy would slow her down, she added, "But I put all that on the back burner anyway. I'm in this campaign full time . . . because I really care about the issues that are confronting people and I want to help solve those anyway."

Staff writer E.J. Dionne Jr. in Michigan contributed to this report.