Hillary sets the Clinton bandwagon rolling

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This week Hillary Clinton comes back. Back home to Chicago, where today's Democratic First Lady grew up as a teenage organiser for Barry Goldwater in the rich and staunchly Republican suburb of Park Ridge. And, after more than a year in Washington's political equivalent of purdah, back into the public eye.

Yesterday, gay and confident, Mrs Clinton was all over Chicago, addressing a women's caucus and a panel on child care, visiting a poor Hispanic district and opening a park, attending fund-raising events for female Democratic candidates and giving scores of interviews. Tonight she addresses the convention in prime time, selling her husband just as hard as Elizabeth Dole sold Bob Dole in her tour de force in San Diego.

For months, the standard wisdom has been that Mrs Clinton's endless embroilment in the Whitewater controversy, and her leading role in the disastrous attempt in 1994 to reform healthcare, have made her a political liability to the President, the most unpopular First Lady in memory. For reasons both obvious and subtle, that may no longer be the case.

For one thing, Republican attacks against her are now increasingly counter- productive, not so much because they seem like cheap political bullying but because they turn her into a political lightning-conductor, drawing criticism otherwise directed at her husband.

Most Americans think she has been less than truthful over Whitewater, but her approval ratings in a CNN/Time magazine poll yesterday were exactly divided, 47 to 47. A month ago, disapproval led approval by 14 points.

And among many party activists, she remains a heroine. Like Eleanor Roosevelt (with whom, it was recently revealed to much ridicule, she has held imaginary conversations), Mrs Clinton is her husband's social conscience. As such, she has massive support among core Democratic constituencies, including minorities, old-fashioned liberals and professional women - all groups which are unhappy with the right-ward shift of her husband as he seeks re-election.

A former co-chairwoman of the Children's Defense Fund, Mrs Clinton has surely been worried at the welfare reform measure signed last week by her husband, which removes automatic federal aid for children living in poverty, and which was described by the fund's president, Marian Wright Edelman, as "a moment of shame". The First Lady, of course, does not go that far.

But her unease is palpable: Will children suffer? "I don't think so," she told CBS yesterday. "I have confidence that the President will fix those parts of the Bill. There was an opportunity he saw to change this welfare system which everyone knows isn't working well. I'll be watching, along with a lot of other Americans."

And, she concludes: "All of a sudden, the era of criticism without responsibility is over." Now that welfare has, in effect, been handed to the individual state, "people have to ask themselves, what can we do now?" Exactly the argument of the President himself, who insists the signed Bill is only "the beginning of welfare reform".

Plainly she will have a visible role in the forthcoming campaign - although no longer touted by her husband with his celebrated pitch from 1992: "Vote for me and get one free." Nor, she says, will she seek tonight to emulate Mrs Dole's bravura performance at the Republican convention, when she went down among delegates on the floor like a talkshow host. Her speech was still "a work in progress" yesterday, but it will focus on children's and family issues.

As for the Republican attacks against her - as Mr Dole suggested in San Diego that her book, It Takes A Village, was closet socialism - Mrs Clinton affects indifference, dismissing them as partisan sniping against her husband: "I really don't pay much attention. Politically, it benefits them to attack me." Of life in the goldfish bowl of the White House, she said: "I don't regret a minute of it."