MANCHESTER, N.H. — Manchester, N.H.-- As the snow piles up on this frosty February night in the heart of town, passersby pile up outside a small Thai restaurant to see what all the fuss is about inside.
Every inch of the place, from bar to grill, is packed and crawling with media -- lights and cameras everywhere, an independent film crew making a movie, network producers on cellular phones back where chicken and vegetables are being stir-fried.
Not so unusual for the Granite State's pre-primary frenzy when presidential hopefuls routinely stop by restaurants to chat. But this time around, it's Hillary Rodham Clinton, the wife of a presidential hopeful, commanding and charming the crowds.
Almost two weeks after she and her husband, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, went on their prime time counterattack -- pitting their now-solid marriage against charges that the governor had carried on a 12-year affair with a sometime nightclub singer -- the outspoken and high-powered lawyer continues to be not only her husband's fiercest defender but also one of the biggest draws on the campaign circuit.
From the very start of the campaign, Mrs. Clinton, a partner with Arkansas' largest law firm who sits on 17 boards including the Children's Defense Fund, which she chairs, has been out in front. She has her own staff, her own rigorous agenda, her own chartered jets and her own ideas about social and economic reform in this country.
"It would be impossible for me not to continue talking about what I care about," says Mrs. Clinton, 44, a Yale Law School graduate twice named one of the 100 most influential lawyers in the country by the National Law Journal. "And before I got all this coverage in the last week I was saying the same thing, although to much smaller crowds."
These days, the Clinton campaign is trying to bring down the profile a notch or two.
"The objective always was for her to have a major role, but in terms of visibility and profile, we had not expected it to expand as it had into the national consciousness," says Mrs. Clinton's press secretary Richard Mintz. Campaign managers have drastically cut back on her interview schedule, set ground rules for what she will and will not discuss in the interviews she does grant and shelved a campaign ad recently produced here featuring Mrs. Clinton. In it, the political wife responds to a question about marital infidelity.
"We didn't see a need to raise the issue again," says Mr. Mintz.
As for the ground rules, he adds: "The campaign is finished discussing the intimate details of the Clintons' marriage. We won't answer any more questions about it."
But even Chicago-born Mrs. Clinton, who's attacked the Republicans for what she calls "tabloid terrorism," knows the questions are still there, more tenacious than her folksy Arkansas accent that seems to drop off like the temperature when in the Northeast.
"I think character is a very big and important issue that encompasses many questions about people," she says, when asked about the relevance to voters of a candidate's character. "And it's an issue that voters develop their own feeling and opinion about and have done a good job in making those judgments in the past. And I believe they will again."
While political analysts continue to debate the damage done to the Clinton campaign by the scandal, Mrs. Clinton says she and her family have come through unscathed.
The Clintons had warned their 11-year-old daughter Chelsea -- who's been staying with her grandparents during much of the campaign -- about what she might be reading on the cover of a supermarket tabloid about her father.
"We've talked to our daughter for years about what happens in politics and prepared her to know that in political campaigns people do things that maybe they should be ashamed of," says Mrs. Clinton, "that they make up stories and say things that aren't true.
"As long as we stand up to whatever they say and don't back off from confronting it, we believe it will turn out all right."
In fact, Mrs. Clinton's mother, Dorothy Rodham, who moved to Little Rock, Ark., with her husband, Hugh, five years ago, says her daughter has lived by a similar sentiment since she was a small child growing up in the middle-class, conservative Republican town of Park Ridge outside Chicago.
In an incident she calls "a metaphor for our family," Mrs. Rodham recalls that a neighborhood girl persisted in beating up on 3-year-old Hillary just after the family had moved from an apartment in the city to their new suburban home.
"I said, 'You can stay in the house and not go out and play in the new yard or you can go out and the next time that girl does anything to you, you do it back to her,' " the mother recalls.
Hillary ventured out and Mrs. Rodham, a housewife who's husband owned a fabric business, hid behind the dining room drapes and watched as the young bully came at her daughter on cue, punching, kicking and pushing her down.