Hillary Shores Up A Shaky Base For '96

To large numbers of voters, Hillary Clinton is political poison. Blamed --fairly or not--for devising a bloated health-reform plan and suspected of wielding undue influence over her husband, Mrs. Clinton is this White House's Dan Quayle: unpopular with many but appealing to her party's faithful. As the 1996 campaign opens, the First Lady is playing to the one audience that unabashedly welcomes her: traditional Democrats. Her mission for the next year and a half is to energize the women, blacks and elderly the president must have to win re-election. "She's the ambassador to the base," says a white House official.

After health-care reform's collapse, Beltway pundits predicted Mrs. Clinton would make herself over into a traditional, tea-giving First Lady, But in fact, she has stayed in the thick of Democratic politics. Her schedule last week was a page from the White House's '96 playbook. At a seniors' center in Boston, she criticized the GOP for proposing Medicare cuts that would "decimate our safety net." She promised union members in Washington that the administration would seek a higher minimum wage and better job training. In Santa Fe, N.M., she held a round table with working women and talked to Native American mothers about Head Start. Then she traveled to must-win California, where she spoke at San Francisco State University. White House schedulers are laying on a round of summer fund-raisers-- followed by intensive travel to battleground states in the fall.

Underlying the strategy is a set of worrisome numbers. The defection of white males from the Democratic Party last November is well known. Less familiar but just as troubling to the White House is the alienation of women, a historically reliable Democratic voting bloc. Many simply stayed home in 1994. Their share of the electorate fell to 51 percent from 54 percent in 1992. White women in particular were elusive, tilting Republican 53 percent to 47 percent. For the First Lady, this political landscape presents an opportunity. Issues she has long championed--children's welfare and the economic advancement of women--are at the heart of the Democratic argument for 1996. One of her favorite talking points these days is a Labor Department poll of working women that found that day care and equal pay were top concerns. A source close to Mrs. Clinton says she's "milking" the survey for political gain.

While she publicly works the base, the First Lady is also playing a key behind-the-scenes role in the re-election campaign. She remains the president's closest adviser, meets regularly with White House political chief Harold Ickes and joins '96 strategy sessions. Aides say she is also learning to brush off the media's obsession with handicapping her image and influence. After The Washington Times suggested last month that she's a puppeteer who dictates everything from her husband's style of shoes (laces, not loafers) to the overexposure of his thighs while he's jogging (long pants, please), she made light of the point, telling an interviewer: "I never said anything about loafers." And she has told aides, "If I want to knock a story off the front page, I just change my hairstyle." But Hillary Clinton knows it will take more than a new 'do to keep her husband in the White House in 1997.