PORTLAND, Maine -- You barely see Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Not because of the heavy fog and mist that mutes the New England autumn as the first lady walks the streets of a working-class neighborhood here to admire a community policing program. Not because some of her campaign appearances are as fleeting as today's hairstyle.
But because the once-newsmaking Mrs. Clinton, who elicits responses that are seldom lukewarm, has slipped quietly into the pockets of Campaign '96, confined to safe venues with adoring, often hand-selected crowds and minimal national exposure.
On the brink of another four years in which to further craft the role of a modern, activist first lady, Mrs. Clinton is nearly invisible on the campaign trail.
She is traveling most days, appearing at women's events and private fund-raisers, campaigning for House and Senate candidates and participating in feel-good forums such as one here this week in which residents told her about anti-crime efforts in their neighborhood.
But there are no "Today" show appearances for her. No "Larry King Live" or rides on the back of Jay Leno's motorcycle. She is careful to commit no news, utter no provocative sound bites. She refuses to allow the national press to travel with her on the sizable government plane that flies her from Maine to Rhode Island to New York to Washington -- all in a day -- and she grants no interviews.
"The events speak for themselves," says her communications director, Marsha Berry.
So do the polls. Although Mrs. Clinton is viewed favorably by about 50 percent of the public, she is unpopular with 45 percent. The specter of Whitewater and the various "gates" that have swung her way have raised questions about the first lady's honesty and ethics and made her too much of a lightning rod to be front and center on the campaign trail.
Typical of the mixed reviews on Mrs. Clinton are those of Michael and Francine Shore, a couple, both Democrats, who attended a "Get Out the Vote" rally in Cherry Hill, N.J., last weekend to see the first lady.
"I don't like her. I don't like the way she's behaved," says Mr. Shore, 57, an engineer who is bothered by the controversies swirling about Mrs. Clinton. "She's a lawyer. Lawyers learn how to rationalize almost any behavior. That's a problem for me."
"I think she's wonderful," says his wife, Francine, 53, an artist. "I think she's dynamite. I think she's really very brilliant. She is what modern women need to see as a model of inspiration."
On the campaign trail, where she generally attracts fawning coverage by local newspapers and TV stations (as they saw the first lady, people "stepped quicker, talked faster, and their eyes began to shine," wrote the Bangor Daily News), there are no hints of Mrs. Clinton's White House troubles.
The Maine residents who stood outside on a rainy Monday morning to see her tried to hug her, give her gifts, thanked her for her advocacy of women and children and, like a secret password between sorority sisters, shouted to her, "It takes a village!" -- the name of her book -- to which she responded, "It does take a village."
In Deerfield Beach, Fla., yesterday, she attended a ribbon-cutting for a medical center that was renamed the Hillary Rodham Clinton Medical Complex.
And in a style that is mild and aggressively inoffensive, she portrays herself as Everywoman -- hardly the dynamo who marched up to Capitol Hill to sell the health care reform package she spearheaded in 1993 or the embattled lawyer who was forced to face a grand jury early this year and may be the possible target of an independent counsel's far-reaching Whitewater probe.
As she helps get out the women's vote -- part of the administration's strategy to energize the women who voted in large numbers for Clinton in 1992 but stayed at home in the 1994 mid-term election -- she suggests, in Clintonesque fashion, that she feels the pain of today's busy working mother.
"Sometimes there's just too much going on," she told the Cherry Hill rally on Sunday where she campaigned for New Jersey Rep. Robert G. Torricelli, who is running for the Senate.
"If you're not dropping the kids off at school or picking them up to take them somewhere else or going to work or checking to make sure that the kids got home from school or going to the doctor's appointment you postponed too long or helping with homework or visiting your mom or your dad or that other older relative who needs some time and attention or paying bills or doing the laundry or taking the dog to the vet or buying cat food "
The friendly, largely female audience -- some of whom wear buttons saying "Give 'Em Health, Hillary," -- cheers wildly as she laments, "I could go on and on and on."
And while she sings the praises of her husband's presidency -- in this case, highlighting the president's signing of the Family and Medical Leave Act and vetoing of the GOP budget that would have "undermined" Medicare and Medicaid -- Mrs. Clinton's speeches are notably attack-free.
In contrast to Elizabeth Dole, who rails against Clinton with vigor, Mrs. Clinton never utters the name "Bob Dole," never says the word "Republican." Instead, she refers to the "other party" and her husband's "opponent."
But her confinement to the shadows of the presidential campaign is not necessarily a sign of things to come.
Free of re-election pressures, Mrs. Clinton is likely to be more out front in the expected second term, say those around her, and a little more relaxed.
"When one is less embattled by the situation and not so brand new, they ought to be able to shake their hips a little bit," says Brooke Shearer, a friend and Interior Department official. "That would be nice to see."
For one thing, Mrs. Clinton is expected to travel more since her daughter, Chelsea, is heading for college next fall -- possibly as far away as Stanford University in California.
And although Mrs. Clinton has said she is too superstitious to plan for the future before Election Day, she has described the broad outlines of a second term.
Answering questions at an appearance in Las Vegas last week, she said she would continue to fight for affordable and accessible health care for all children, and wanted to focus on the nation's adoption and foster care system.
"And I want to continue working in any way that I can to help my husband on the issues that he's committed to, particularly education and welfare reform," she said.
Talk of her helping the president modify the welfare reform bill that he signed, then pledged to alter amid outrage from many Democrats, has already created a stir because of the still-fresh memories of her lead role in the health care reform debacle.
In a recent interview with Barbara Walters, Mr. Clinton raised the possibility of putting his wife in charge of fixing the welfare bill, but quickly backed off, insisting, "It's not a formal role. It's not a formal role."
Indeed, few around Mrs. Clinton think she will take on another issue in as high-profile and official way as she did with health care.
"Will she head a task force? I don't think so," said a former administration official.
Of course, the great unknown in Mrs. Clinton's future is Whitewater -- specifically, the report that is expected from independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr in 1997. Mrs. Clinton could emerge from the investigation totally exonerated or, in a worst-case and historic scenario, recommended for indictment.
The former White House official said the investigation continues to preoccupy her: "My gosh, she's watched her friends get subpoenaed, two of her staff get subpoenaed with rather large legal fees. It absolutely does weigh on her."
Even if there are no legal repercussions for her from the Whitewater investigation, Mrs. Clinton will be hard-pressed to gain the admiration of those who view her with disdain and whose opinions, in many cases, were formed before the Clintons moved into the White House.
Jennifer Petersen, 35, a Portland mother of three who stood in the crush of Hillary fans with a "Dole/Kemp" sign, said she was offended by Mrs. Clinton's comment in 1992 that, instead of pursuing her law career, she could have stayed home and baked cookies.
"I happen to do that for a living," says the stay-at-home mother. "I think it's the most important thing you can do. She started off on a bad note with me."
There are no such "cookie" remarks on the campaign trail this time around. No edge to Mrs. Clinton's words. No promises of two for the price of one. Even so, there are intense feelings about her that have only grown more impassioned over the last four years.
"She will always be a lightning rod," says conservative writer David Brock, author of "The Seduction of Hillary Rodham." "In some respect, she will be more remembered than her husband because she has triggered such deep emotions -- intense identification with her, and also a lot of people wanting to hate her."
Pub Date: 11/01/96