WELLESLEY, Mass. -- She's precisely the kind of woman they had in mind. High-powered and hard-charging. Credentialed. Professionally successful. Outspoken.
Not that Barbara Bush wasn't a huge hit when she spoke to Wellesley College's graduating class of 1990. Not that her warmth and wit didn't win over most of those students who'd earlier protested her selection as commencement speaker.
But as Hillary Rodham Clinton, wife of Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton, returned to her undergraduate alma mater yesterday to address students and alumnae, the Yale-educated lawyer seemed the envy and pride of many at the private women's college outside Boston.
"She's such a highly-ranked woman, she's just what we want to be," said freshman Beth Ameen. "What I like is that she stands on her own, she's not dependent on her husband or her husband's reputation."
Ironically, in fact, it is Mrs. Clinton's husband, the governor of Arkansas, who may now be dependent on her to save his presidential bid, nearly derailed in the last several weeks with allegations of marital infidelity.
Mrs. Clinton, 44, already an active and vocal participant in the campaign when it began, has recently become even more of a high-stakes player, acting as her husband's first and best line of defense and taking up the crusade everywhere, from network television to the college from which she graduated with honors in 1969.
Yesterday, however, there was no mention of Gennifer Flowers, the sometime-cabaret singer who told a supermarket tabloid that she had a 12-year affair with Mr. Clinton, and only a few references to the scandal that's stolen center stage in the governor's pursuit of the Democratic nomination.
At an alumnae luncheon, Mrs. Clinton stood in front of a roaring fire in a private dining room on campus and joked to former classmates that"thousands of reporters . . . never wanted to know what I believed about women's issues or children's issues or the work force in America before until last week. . . . I suppose that is the silver lining, if anybody can get past the rest of it."
She managed to get light years past "the rest of it" when speaking to hundreds of students who packed an auditorium to hear the political spouse, talking for roughly half an hour about her vision for the "new American adventure that awaits us," and not-so-subtly (but without naming names) attacking the policies of the last decade.
"From my perspective of more than 20 years of advocacy and work on behalf of children and women's issues, civil rights issues and justice issues, I'm not happy about the level of debate that is going on in this country or the awareness of what the costs are for our continual denial of what is happening," said Mrs. Clinton, who chairs the board of the directors of the Children's Defense Fund and sits on more than a dozen other public and private boards.
The political spouse, who last spoke at Wellesley at her graduation 23 years ago as president of the student government, left little uncertainty about her role in, not only the campaign, but any future residency on Washington's Pennsyvlania Avenue.
"Will a vote for Governor Clinton in a sense be a vote for you for president?" a student in the audience asked to much laughter and applause.
"We've been partners for a long time," she responded. "We have influenced each other a lot . . . I can assure you I will be a major player" in dealing with women's and children's issues.
Many others wanted to know why Mrs. Clinton herself wasn't running.
"She was cool. She should run," said sophomore Sonali Banerjee, following the speech. "We'd vote for her. I liked the way she said 'us' instead of 'him.' "
"I think she'll be a heckuva helpmate," said Millie Morgan, a resident of the town of Wellesley who came to campus to hear the candidate's wife. "I'm going to vote for [Paul] Tsongas, but I won't be unhappy if these two -- and everybody says 'these two' -- end up on top."
Many school officials and students compared the interest surrounding yesterday's speech with Mrs. Bush's highly-publicized and highly acclaimed appearance at Wellesley nearly two years ago. Both political wives were enthusiastically received, both were awarded standing ovations.
But the contrasts between the two women were lost on few.
"It's ironic. It's such a different atmosphere," said sophomore Juliette Relihan. "[Mrs. Clinton] is not only a spouse, but an accomplished woman in her own right."