Cashing In On Letting Hillary Be Hillary

IT WAS A DEFT MANEUVER. When Hillary Clinton presided over a luncheon for Senate wives at the White House in June, Elizabeth Dole was among the guests. As the hundred or so spouses turned to their chilled carrot-and-ginger soup, Mrs. Clinton stood to wish Elizabeth a fond welcome. She was sure, she said, smiling, that the two would conduct themselves with ""good grace and civility.''

Bob Dole and his troops can push Hillary around all they like take shots at her book, hint darkly at her role in Whitewater but the First Lady is determined not to give them the satisfaction of watching her retreat. Chastened by the ferocity of anti-Clinton forces, she now pushes ""family'' issues and steers clear of policy quagmires. But ever the missionary, she refuses to back away from the arena altogether--and the Democrats may have finally found a safe niche for her: bringing in campaign cash. In recent months, she has helped raise $5 million from old-line Democratic constituencies, and she's just getting started.

This week the First Lady's convention speech will inevitably be measured against Elizabeth Dole's Oprah-style walk-and-talk in San Diego. But one of Mrs. Clinton's big pieces of business is in a quieter, non-prime-time venue: a fund-raiser for female candidates hosted by EMILY's List. In any event, Mrs. Clinton has let it be known that she has no interest in trying to reinvent herself yet again. At the convention she'll give her ""It Takes a Village'' riff, and the White House hopes her themes of ""community'' and ""family responsibility'' will mute the health-care disaster -- and her still murky role in the Clinton scandals.

Though she has kept a low public profile lately, Mrs. Clinton remains an obsessive tinkerer, sitting up late in her sweats, scratching revisions in the margins of her speeches. Even then she rarely delivers a text as written, often ad-libbing whole paragraphs. (Elizabeth Dole began memorizing her convention speech a year ago, and choreographed every head toss and heel pivot.) And she's still protective of Chelsea. Though the 16-year-old popped up at her father's 50th birthday, she will make only a brief cameo in Chicago.

For her part, it doesn't much matter what Mrs. Clinton actually saysat this point. Her detractors see her as a liberal trying to subvert traditional family values--while admirers see her as a latter-day Eleanor Roosevelt. But her political base of moderate to liberal women is receptive to her appeals for votes and cash, even when the president supports policies many female voters find outrageous, like welfare reform. ""She didn't sign it -- he did,'' says Deborah Weinstein of the Children's Defense Fund. That kind of loyalty is making Mrs. Clinton one of the party's most effective rainmakers. Democrats have filled her fall schedule with at least 10 moneymaking stops. Elizabeth Dole may make many women reach for their Kleenex, but Hillary can make them reach for their checkbooks.