- The Washington Times - Friday, February 23, 2001

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's political future is still as bright as the days before the pardons, say her Democratic backers.

Despite what supporters admitted were "stumbles" and "distractions," the former first lady will prosper as junior senator from New York, they say.

"She is still one of the most popular Democrats in the country," said Rick Hess, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee. "Rank-and-file Democratic leaders across the country feel very strongly that she is a highly qualified senator."

Added Chung Seto, spokeswoman for the New York State Democratic Committee: "These are distractions, but she's representing us well."

But other observers say the former first lady is more politically vulnerable without the protection of the White House and the role of the first lady.

Mrs. Clinton yesterday spent more than 30 minutes, a marathon by the standard of her previous accessibility, answering questions about her knowledge of controversial presidential pardons instead of waxing progressive on New York's future.

She coolly denied knowing anything about the $400,000 her brother, Hugh Rodham, received for lobbying in behalf of two men who sought clemency from President Clinton in the last days of his presidency.

She also said she had no prior knowledge that her campaign treasurer, William Cunningham III, had helped prepare official papers for other pardon-seekers.

As for her political plans, a smiling Mrs. Clinton said: "I have gotten up every day and worked very hard every day and that's what I intend to do here."

She added that she meets daily with her staff and has visited constituents since being sworn in on Jan. 3.

Her statements followed the same lines as her standard stump speech last fall, which included repeated promises that she would "fight" for New York in Congress.

What she didn't know then is that she also would have to fight a spate of bad publicity over her husband's 11th-hour actions.

"People will judge me at the end of my term based on what I do," the former first lady promised at the packed Capitol Hill news conference.

Results from a Gallup Poll released yesterday suggest the pardon controversy has hurt Mrs. Clinton's public standing. The poll was taken before the latest revelations about the senator's brother.

The survey of 1,016 adults gave Mrs. Clinton a 44 percent unfavorable rating, up from 39 percent in November. Her favorable rating, meanwhile, slipped from 56 percent to 49 percent.

Lee Miringoff, a Marist College pollster who spent most of the fall tracking Mrs. Clinton's senatorial bid, added that the recent flaps have impeded the former first lady's efforts to establish herself in Congress.

"The pardons have, in the last 24 hours, brought her back into the White House," said Mr. Miringoff. "Instead of there being a clean break between the Clinton White House years and the Clinton Senate years, she has lost her second chance to make a first impression."

Mrs. Clinton made a special trip to Capitol Hill from her new Embassy Row home to appear before cameras and deny any knowledge of her brother's actions.

Her growing political savvy was evident in her actions, noted Paul Begala, a former Clinton adviser and co-host of "Equal Time" on MSNBC.

"I think today was a good indication that she was going to come through this fine," Mr. Begala said. "Her opponents have the obligation to prove that she had prior knowledge of the [pardons]. The fact is, I don't think these stumbles will hurt Hillary."

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