Still a celebrity

STILL A CELEBRITY: A crowd presses toward Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) after a speech to seniors last week in Rockville Centre, N.Y. Her approval rating in the state was 56% in April. (Michael E. Ach / Newsday)

RIVERHEAD, N.Y. — It looked like a traditional event for a rural politician: A member of Congress, standing before a sweltering summer crowd, had come to toast a local Farm Bureau official.

But the star here last week was Hillary Rodham Clinton, better known as a national liberal symbol than a hero to the traditionally Republican farming community.

In a sparsely populated part of Long Island, amid vineyards and a zinnia patch, the Democratic senator from New York boasted of raising the visibility of the state's agricultural sector among her Washington colleagues.

"They didn't know we grew anything in New York except tall buildings," she quipped.

It was far from the world of national politics usually associated with Clinton. Even while speculation grows that she will run for president in 2008, Clinton spends much of her time on the more pedestrian work of representing New York: appearing at food banks, meetings on traffic congestion and — as she did last week — a Farm Bureau reception.

But her twin worlds of local and national politics have something in common. In New York, where she is running for reelection in 2006, and in the Senate, where she is shaping her national persona, Clinton is moving to shed the partisan image she acquired as first lady.

She has taken up causes such as economic development and military overhaul that are nonpartisan or more centrist than her work in championing a national healthcare plan while her husband was president. She is teaming with local Republican officials and with some of the Senate's most conservative members.

Those efforts are beginning to pay off in New York. Her approval ratings have jumped significantly since she was elected in 2000 — even among Republicans. It is a sign that Clinton, one of the most polarizing political figures in America, has found a way to get a second look from New York voters.

"I hated her with a passion," said John Perri, a Long Island businessman who heard Clinton speak last week at a country club in Woodbury, N.Y. "But I've come to respect her. She's a lot more moderate now."

The question for Clinton now is whether she can get a second look from skeptics in the rest of the nation. In a presidential race, she would be courting swing voters in the South and other regions who are far more conservative than the moderate Republicans and independents of New York. But if she lurched too conspicuously to the center, some strategists say, Clinton might feed a suspicion harbored even by some Democrats: that she is an ambitious opportunist who tailors her views for political purposes.

"By trotting her out with some Republican every other week, it shows she's not the crazy liberal you think she is," said one seasoned Democratic strategist who admires Clinton. "But it also conveys that she'll do anything to get elected."

What's more, Clinton would have to contend with a vocal national contingent of Republicans whose hostility toward her is matched only by their feelings for her husband. That sentiment was clear at a recent reception held by the College Republicans, where the crowd burst into deafening boos when the senator's picture flashed on TV.

The Republican Party taps into that animus by showing Clinton on its fundraising material. "She has taken over [Sen. Edward M.] Kennedy's role as the best fundraiser Republicans have," said Stephen Minarik, chairman of the New York State GOP.

Veteran GOP consultant Arthur Finkelstein has started a group to derail Clinton's ambitions. Stop Her Now aims to raise $10 million through its website; its first radio ad, to air this summer, attacks Clinton as a liberal wolf in moderate sheep's clothing.

Clinton says she is focusing on her Senate reelection campaign and refuses to comment on her presidential prospects.

"With two websites already up and running against me, and a lot of energy on the other side, I'm not taking anything for granted," Clinton said in an interview. She deflected questions about whether she would promise New York voters, as she did in 2000, to serve her full six-year term in the Senate.

"One step at a time," she said.

Republicans acknowledge it will be hard to beat her in New York next year. Her popularity and name recognition are high, and she has already raised more money than any other senator facing reelection. Moreover, the GOP has not coalesced behind a candidate to challenge her.

"She will be a very, very formidable incumbent to beat," Rep. John M. McHugh (R-N.Y.) said.