Chelsea Clinton Raises Profile

After a round of applause and a smattering of cheers at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., last Friday, Chelsea Clinton immediately got down to business. No fiery stump speech. No applause lines. Just this: "Does anyone have a question about my mom?" That launched a discussion more befitting of C-Span than MTV as she explained Hillary Clinton's positions on issues ranging from Pell Grants to gay and lesbian rights. Occasionally Chelsea veered toward the personal, recounting how her mother is addicted to the TV show "Grey's Anatomy" and how her parents made her clean her room and set the table at the White House. All of it, of course, was geared toward making the case for her mother's candidacy. As she'd told another crowd of students the day before at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, "There's nobody who I like more and trust more in the entire world."

Long seen as shy, sheltered and "mute," as columnist Maureen Dowd put it recently, Chelsea, 27, has emerged as one of Hillary's most potent surrogates. The evolution has been gradual—from tentative forays last December in Iowa, where she smiled and waved benignly beside her mother, to the current string of solo appearances that sometimes resemble full-fledged rallies. She has visited more than 20 states so far and plans to continue through at least March 4. Her aim is twofold: to win over young voters, so many of whom have flocked to Sen. Barack Obama, and to strengthen her mother's lead among women. Chelsea "has the unique ability to talk about her mother in a way no one else can," says Philippe Reines, a senior Hillary adviser who now travels with the former—and possibly future—First Daughter.

Campaign aides say Chelsea wasn't pressured to raise her profile. She "makes up her own mind," says a former Hillary staffer who knows Chelsea well but did not want to discuss her on the record. "Chelsea, like her mother, is strategic. She knows that if she is not overexposed that she will be more of a story." After Hillary's abysmal performance among young voters in the Iowa caucuses, Chelsea decided to help, says another adviser who similarly requested anonymity. "I will go wherever you want me to go," the adviser recalls her saying repeatedly. She's proved less controversial than her dad, and has attracted plenty of media coverage in markets her mother is unable to reach. Her efforts may have contributed to Hillary's showing in California, where, according to different exit polls, Senator Clinton either narrowly beat or barely lost to Obama among voters ages 18 to 29—a dramatic improvement over the 11 percent she captured in Iowa.

Chelsea's campaign schedule is now nearly as grueling as her mother's. She often gets started at 5 a.m. and doesn't wrap up until well past midnight. In between events, she e-mails her mother with updates and checks in with the political and youth directors at campaign headquarters. She also works the phones, thanking supporters and even occasionally trying to woo superdelegates. (That last task prompted MSNBC's David Shuster last week to suggest that the Clintons had "pimped out" their daughter, infuriating the campaign; Shuster, who apologized on air, was suspended.)

Audiences usually respond warmly to her. "She's a very genuine person," says the actress America Ferrera, who has joined Chelsea on the campaign trail. And "it is very hard to give her a question she can't answer." Though Chelsea has swayed more than a few voters, some have come away unconvinced. "She did a good job of conveying her mom's message," says Nicky Adamson, a student who saw Chelsea last month at Stanford University and ended up voting for Obama. "But the average college student can't relate to her, because she seems so intellectual."

Chelsea's new visibility is a striking change. During her White House years, the press mostly followed an unwritten code to keep its distance. Even as a young adult, significant milestones—graduating from Stanford and Oxford, entering a relationship, getting a job at a Manhattan hedge fund—haven't attracted outsize publicity. She's always turned down interview requests (including from NEWSWEEK) and wouldn't take a question from a 9-year-old Scholastic News "reporter" who approached her in Iowa. "I'm sorry, I don't talk to the press," she said, "even though I think you're cute." When it comes to voters in primary states, though, it's an entirely different story.