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First Lady and Public Opinion

By sticking by president's side, Mrs. Clinton allows millions of women to justify backing him, too.

Of the entire cast of characters that make up the Lewinsky affair, perhaps none displays more Shakespearean complexity than Hillary Rodham Clinton.

As President Clinton's wife, she has been betrayed by his now-acknowledged relationship with a former White House intern.

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And yet she remains his closest adviser, reportedly playing a major role in the drafting of his statement to the nation Monday night - and urging its confrontational tone toward independent counsel Kenneth Starr.

But most important, by sticking by his side and continuing to proclaim her love for him and commitment to their marriage, she allows millions of Americans - especially women - to justify sticking with the president, too. Without women voters, Mr. Clinton would not have been elected president.

And without their support now, his approval ratings would crash, leaving him politically vulnerable in the face of a Congress that may take up impeachment.

"She's very important" to the maintenance of his high approval ratings, says Jennifer Laszlo, a Democratic consultant. "People view her with respect for her intelligence and integrity, and her compassion for the American people. They respect the fact that she's very loyal to her husband."

Indeed, polls show that the gender gap that has always given Mr. Clinton higher ratings among women than men persists.

A Gallup poll taken just after the president's speech found that 63 percent of women were satisfied with his explanation of the Lewinsky matter versus 43 percent of men. That same poll showed the president's job approval among women at 67 percent, compared with 56 percent among men.

Mrs. Clinton herself is boosted by a female-tilted gender gap as she enjoys favorability ratings in the 60-percent range, among the highest of her husband's presidency.

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Questioning her support

But behind Mrs. Clinton's strong support among the public, there lurk questions about her own candor and about her willingness, it appears, to put up with just about anything from her husband. Is she really supposed to "stand by her man" no matter what, many women have asked in street interviews.

Many Americans also find it strains credulity for the first lady's office to claim that Mrs. Clinton didn't know the truth of her husband's relationship with Monica Lewinsky until this past weekend.

Mrs. Clinton is a highly intelligent person, a Yale-trained lawyer, and she had to have had at least strong suspicions that his earlier denials were false, some say.

Mrs. Clinton's steadfast defense of her husband from the beginning also raises questions about what she has truly believed about her husband's actions.

In January, just after the Lewinsky story broke, Mrs. Clinton claimed on the "Today Show" that the charges were just part of a vast right-wing conspiracy to bring down the president.

More recently, she told an Arkansas newspaper that the Starr investigation stemmed from anti-Arkansas sentiment.

"I don't know what she knew and when she knew it, but it strikes me you'd have to be pretty naive to think this guy was innocent on the face of it," says George Edwards, a presidential analyst at Texas A&M University in College Station.

"I've always maintained that Hillary will put up with anything, because she wants to be in the White House. She's in a lose-lose situation. If she stays in the White House, she's humiliated, but at least she has a forum. If she leaves, she might be America's hero, but she loses her forum."

James Rosebush, who was first lady Nancy Reagan's chief of staff, echoes these views. "She has condoned this behavior. Not that I would expect her to do anything other than what she's done, but I see her right now playing the role of political partner."

In the fishbowl

If nothing else, one thing is certain about the Clintons: their relationship will be a matter of speculation long after they've left the White House.

For now, Mrs. Clinton's staff and supporters are firm in their devotion to her.

"She's always been there for him, he's always been there for her," says Neel Lattimore, Mrs. Clinton's former press secretary. "They are their own strongest defenders," he adds, noting that the president has "stepped up to the plate" to defend her on a number of occasions.

In Starr's Whitewater investigation, which morphed into the Lewinsky investigation in January, the longstanding view was that Mrs. Clinton was in bigger trouble than her husband over the couple's financial dealings.

Lisa Caputo, another former spokeswoman for Mrs. Clinton, speaks of a symbiosis in the first couple's relationship that's "electrifying." "They finish one another's sentences," she says. "One lights up when the other walks into the room."

Regardless of her relationship with her husband, Mrs. Clinton had seemed to find her groove as first lady.

She had overcome her negative image from her early days as the head of the president's health-care reform initiative, and had seemed to settle into a more traditional role for a president's wife, focusing on women and children and preserving national landmarks.

With 2-1/2 years left in the Clinton presidency, it's probably too soon to speak of Mrs. Clinton's legacy. But Mr. Lattimore offers an early assessment: "Fundamentally," he says, "she'll be remembered for her courage."

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