Getting Ready To Leave The Nest

THE FIRST LADY SAYS IT WAS HER most trying moment of this volatile election year -- and it didn't have anything to do with Whitewater. Mrs. Clinton says that the ""toughest'' test she's faced was college night at Chelsea's high school. As her daughter becomes a senior at Washington's Sidwell Friends this week, Mrs. Clinton says she has severe ""pre-empty-nest syndrome.'' She's even talked about adopting another child to fill the void. ""You feel so old,'' she told party members in Chicago about the mixed emotions of looking at colleges. ""Your child looks so independent.''

Four years ago, the Clintons were obsessive about keeping Chelsea away from the hurly-burly of the political life (polls taken during the 1992 campaign showed that many voters had no idea the Clintons even had a daughter). But this year, their sheltered child has gone public in a big way. At the Democratic convention, the cameras couldn't get enough of the 16-year-old who had seemed to graduate overnight from braces to lipstick. There is undoubtedly some politics behind the new, public Chelsea. Faced with GOP attacks on values and character, the Clintons can offer her as curly-haired proof of their parental credentials. Deploying Chelsea also subtly reminds voters that the older Doles are without children of their own, and possibly out of touch with what today's family faces. But the major force behind Chelsea's coming out seems to be Chelsea herself. White House spokesman Mike McCurry told reporters that she asked her parents if she could take part in the convention fanfare, an idea they hadn't considered. ""The trip,'' McCurry quoted her saying, ""sounds like a lot of fun.''

And suddenly, she's everywhere. She was there on President Clinton's whistle-stop train trip, shaking hands and waving -- one day in bare feet -- and even demurring when a teenager in Toledo yelled, ""Do you have a date for Homecoming yet?'' She was all over the convention: on the official campaign film, in her parents' anecdote-filled speeches (though the family stories, most of which first appeared in Mrs. Clinton's book, had been preapproved by Chelsea). Perhaps the strongest evidence that the First Daughter has arrived came at the hottest party in Chicago. She rolled up to the Art Institute, accompanied by her mother, in a black limousine. ""Hello, John,'' Mrs. Clinton said as she greeted the party's host, George magazine publisher John Kennedy Jr. They chatted for a few minutes. Then Mrs. Clinton returned to the limo and left Chelsea alone for the evening -- albeit chaperoned by a few Secret Service agents and hundreds of guests -- with People magazine's 1988 Sexiest Man Alive.

Though they have allowed Chelsea to emerge at her own pace, the Clintons seem a bit nervous about their daughter's growing independence. In the past, the media complied with the White House's request to respect Chelsea's privacy. Reporters basically kept their distance and honored the Clintons' ban on First Daughter interviews. Now they may begin to consider Chelsea fair game. The first shot came last month, when newspapers reported -- erroneously -- that Chelsea had been served a glass of white wine in a restaurant while touring colleges with her mother.

Yet Chelsea -- armed with her father's natural charm -- visit to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange last week, the employees broke into chants of ""Chelsea! Chelsea!'' when she put her arm around exchange chairman Jack Sandner for a photo. ""I'm sort of surprised by the reaction,'' one trader said. ""This isn't exactly a hotbed of Democrats.'' She's had some practice in the poise department of late. In June, she attended her first state dinner. During spring break, she accompanied Mrs. Clinton on an overseas trip and wowed the American troops serving in Bosnia. No wonder supporters along the train route last week held up signs proclaiming CHELSEA IN 2016.

Though she will visit the campaign trail this fall, Chelsea is going to be busy filling out college applications. She says she wants to study medicine. ""She is not particularly interested in politics,'' McCurry says. Where she matriculates is also up for discussion. A top student, Chelsea expects to apply to a handful of prestigious universities, including the one where her parents met: Yale. But her father is said to have his heart set on Georgetown. That's his alma mater. But more important, it's three miles from the White House.