THE CONTENDERS: HILLARY CLINTON
Clinton: Most famous. Least known?
Former first lady seeks to meld many images into one winning bid
U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (D-NY) greets supporters at Festhalle Barn at the Amana Colonies November 6, 2007 in Amana, Iowa. (Getty Images photo by Eric Thayer / November 6, 2007)
Despite her fame and power, Clinton keeps in regular touch with the circle of close high school girlfriends she made growing up in Park Ridge back when the Beatles were a new act.
Led by the junior senator from New York and soon-to-be presidential candidate, the Maine South alumnae adjourned to the kitchen, raided the fridge, gushed over a friend's jewelry and mugged in yoga poses. All that was missing were the hair curlers and the stack of 45 r.p.m. hits.
"We just kicked our shoes off, and Hillary was just one of the girls," said Betsy Ebeling, who has known Clinton since the 6th grade.
If Clinton has a problem as she seeks the Democratic presidential nod -- and problem is a relative term for a tightly disciplined campaign powered by a fiercely loyal political army -- it's that many voters consider her nothing like the down-to-earth woman in that kitchen scene.
A Clinton campaign mantra is that she is the most famous but least known candidate in the presidential race, an odd conceit given that hers is one of the best known faces in the world. Perhaps no one in American public life has had her life subjected to such intense and personal examination -- the dozens of books, the many investigations, the tabloid obsessions.
Her hairdos, her cleavage, even her laugh have been picked apart for hidden meaning. Few names are as likely to start an argument.
Her qualities are also enmeshed in the profound question that her presidential candidacy presents: whether America is ready for a woman as commander in chief.
Rivals see her as slick Willie in a pantsuit, with shifting stands on everything from Iraq to free trade agreements, guided more by polls than principles. They were quick to pounce in a recent debate when Clinton, in a rare stumble, resorted to semantic gymnastics worthy of her husband as she strained to avoid a clear stand on a controversial plan to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.
That same issue, in the next debate, also underscored her strength. She pivoted quickly, changed position and managed to come out looking like the winner.
No potential opponent animates the GOP base like Clinton. They still think of her as a conniving, imperious first lady who tried to impose sweeping government controls on health care.
Republican Dick Armey, the former House majority leader, summed up the GOP anxiety over a new Clinton White House this way: She is more disciplined than her husband and may at times sound downright moderate, but that only masks her big government agenda. "We all know what she wants," said Armey. "She wants the government to run your life."
Disdain hasn't been confined to the right. Some liberals accuse her of finger-to-the-wind Iraq stands, and feminists complain that ambition led her to become a doormat for her philandering husband.
Hillary Clinton's many admirers see a very different person, earnest, focused and pragmatic, a symbol of accomplishment.
To all of that, Clinton's Maine South pals would add another quality: resilience. In school, she was the quintessential striver, the National Merit Scholar with an armful of community service awards. She might stumble, but she never gave up.
It is that tenacity that undergirds her presidential bid. Clinton's tenure as first lady was marred by turmoil and melodrama, yet in just a few short years she has come into her own as a political force with a genuine shot at shattering the nation's ultimate glass ceiling.
A suburban childhood
At the corner of Elm and Wisner Streets in Park Ridge were four manhole covers that doubled as bases in the neighborhood pickup softball games. One regular was Hillary Diane Rodham, at 10 the ball-playing equal of any boy at Eugene Field Elementary School.
"We always wanted her on our team," recalled Ernest Ricketts. "She absolutely loved the game and could give you the stats of players in the American League, the National League."