For The Record: Hillary Clinton

Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential potential has been a topic of discussion among her peers since the '60s, CBS News correspondent Nancy Cordes reports.

"I have 35 years of experience," she says on the campaign trail.

That would take us back to 1973, the year she graduated from Yale Law School and went to work for the Children's Defense Fund, interviewing juvenile offenders and dropouts.

Over the next few years she moved from one success to the next: Serving as a staff lawyer on the House Judiciary Committee as it considered impeaching President Nixon during Watergate; teaching criminal law at the University of Arkansas; heading the Legal Services Corporation, which represented the poor, after first being appointed to the board by President Carter.

In 1979, the year her husband became Governor of Arkansas, Hillary Rodham who raised eyebrows by declining to take his name, became the first female partner at the prestigious Rose Law Firm in Little Rock.

"Because there were so few women and particularly so few young women involved in traditional male venues, clearly her mere presence probably turned some people off," said Jay Barth, an associate professor of political science at Hendrix College.

Arkansas' first lady decided to take a shot at reforming the state's abysmal education system.

"I really believe that our young students need as much personal attention as they can get," Clinton said at the time.

It was a tough sell, involving the largest tax increase in the state's history and testing for teachers.

"Hillary went out into the state. She held public hearings I think in all 75 counties and she very effectively disarmed her critics," said Political Science Professor Hal Bass of Ouachita Baptist University.

Learn about Clinton's competition: Barack Obama, For The Record.
Her grassroots victory would go down as one of Bill Clinton's most significant gubernatorial accomplishments.

It prompted her husband to hand her an even larger policy initiative as soon as he won the White House - health care reform.

"Now is our chance to beat the historical odds and give the American people the health security they need and deserve," Clinton said at the time.

But from the start, she did not seem to follow her own lessons.

"She had a kind of confrontational approach to everybody," said biographer Sally Bedell Smith, who spent three years researching the Clinton White House and is author of the book, "For Love of Politics." "Because they were conducting the task force in secret, they were subject to legal challenge, and that created a lot of problems. It also created perception problems."

"Why did she decide to hold those meetings in secret?" Cordes asked.

"Well, I don't think she ever really explained that," Smith said.

After two years ... and countless hearings, the 1,300-page plan imploded.

Defeated, but not deterred, Clinton set her sights on more manageable goals, like creating the State Children's Health Care Program and increasing vaccination rates.

Still, behind the scenes she had the last word on so many issues, staffers had a nickname for her: "The Supreme Court."

It was her idea to tap Janet Reno for attorney general … and Madeleine Albright for secretary of state.

Her position on NAFTA has become a point of contention in job-strapped Ohio.

Publicly, she supported it in those early days. But within White House walls …

"She had grave reservations about NAFTA - was probably against it," said Reporter and biographer Carl Bernstein.

Clinton has cited her extensive travel - 80 trips as First Lady - as part of her foreign policy experience. She promoted microfinance in Latin America, peace in Bosnia and, famously, human rights in China.

But for the most part she functioned as more of a Goodwill Ambassador.

"I noticed in the debate the other night that she said she had played a role in the Irish Peace Process, the Northern Ireland peace process," Smith said. "But in fact, there really is no evidence that she participated in any negotiations that led to the Good Friday Accords."

Hillary Clinton's role and relationships factored into nearly every scandal that rocked the Clinton White House.

Whitewater, an investment deal gone bad with friends from Arkansas. Travelgate, where she allegedly participated in the firing of seven White House Travel Office employees.

But multimillion-dollar investigations turned up either no wrongdoing on her part or not enough evidence to prosecute. And the only Clinton investigation that did stick…had decidedly little to do with the first lady.

"I am happy to answer the Grand Jury's questions," she said during the Monica Lewinski investigation.

She has called it the greatest adversity she has ever faced.

But instead of retreating from public life, she decided to run for office herself.

"I want to be the next senator from New York!" Clinton said.

Like Sen. Obama, she faced a relatively weak Republican opponent. Unlike Obama, she shunned the spotlight her first few years in office.

"She went into the Senate not as a show horse but as a work horse," said former Hillary Clinton press secretary Lisa Caputo.

Learning the Senate power structure, landing a coveted spot on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and reaching out to former Republican foes.

She teamed with Bill Frist on modernizing medical record - and with Tom DeLay on foster care. She teamed with Lindsay Graham, who had led the impeachment effort against her husband, on benefits for veterans. She worked with Newt Gingrich on health care policy.

"We were agreeing with each other so much, I think people were thinking: 'the end is near!'" Clinton said about her collaboration with Gingrich.

"The most fascinating thing about Clinton in the Senate was to hear the conservative Republicans that had gone back home and often advanced their own political careers by using Hillary as the great whipping person," said Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, "going around saying privately and for some of them publicly, 'wow what a nice person and what a terrific colleague.'"

But all of her efforts to bridge the gap with the right were seen by some on the left as burning bridges with her base.

Her vote to authorize the Iraq War in 2002 still haunts Clinton on the campaign trail.

She said at the time: "We say to him use these powers wisely and as a last resort!"

She has won over her adopted state, cruising to reelection in 2006.

Last year, she steered more money to her state than only a handful of senators - $342 million worth of infrastructure projects, defense contracts and other earmarks.

"Her record in the Senate has been one of finding allies in strange places, and after a period of building confidence then using her celebrity not to take credit for everything but to get leverage," Ornstein said.

Now, she is taking credit for her accomplishments and hoping to use them as leverage to get into the White House. But as she does, it spotlights her past successes, failures and controversies.

The question that's yet to be answered: Are enough voters convinced that it's time for a Clinton in the White House - with a different Clinton in charge?

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    Nancy Cordes is CBS News' congressional correspondent.