NEW YORK. — New York - - It's the tail end of a killer day and Hillary Clinton settles into the sofa on the 14th floor of the Intercontinental looking remarkably alert and limp free, drinking spring water straight out of a plastic bottle.
The day broke with a sheaf of headlines declaring that the campaign was manufacturing a ''gentler, kinder'' Hillary. Family Circle featured a political bake-off between Hillary's and Barbara's chocolate chip cookie recipes.
More than one story talked about the ''two sides'' of the candidate's wife: heads up she's a lawyer, heads down she's a wife. And Republicans were comparing Hillary Clinton at the stove to Mike Dukakis in a tank.
The candidate's wife had spent the day at the Texas caucus, the Emily's List luncheon, a pow-wow for congressional wives (dubbed ''power wives'' on the schedule) and eight other stops, where she offered everything from a wave to a 25-minute speech without notes.
At the Women of Color reception, not surprisingly, a woman in my row offered this piece of high praise with a kicker, ''Gee, I wish she were running for the Senate.''
Now, in the Garden, six female nominees for the Senate were speaking and everyone was talking about the year of the woman. But what about wives? Is it actually easier for a woman to be the candidate this year than the candidate's wife?
Hillary answers with a knowing but cautious, ''Maybe.'' We knew what it was to be a wife, she agrees. We've learned what it is to be an independent woman. But we haven't yet figured out what it looks like to be strong, independent and wifely -- especially First Wifely -- all at the same time.
''I thought I understood that before this race was under way,'' says Hillary Clinton, who comes across as comfortable and thoughtful. ''That's what I was living. I thought that with some stops and starts and changes along the way trying to get it all straight, I was a very lucky person because I had a profession that I valued, a marriage that I thought was a partnership in the best sense of the word and gave me a lot of personal satisfaction.
''I thought I understood how to walk through that minefield of defining myself and striking the balance between my own needs and family needs that we all struggle with all the time.''
Now she finds the controversy that has followed her from Arkansas to the national stage ''surprising'' and even ''bewildering.'' She had, to be sure, a rocky introduction to the American public. Her image was flanked by Flowers and cookies and Tammy Wynette.
But much of the Hillary Problem, she suspects, is another case study about men, women, change. And this time also marriage. As Hillary says, ''I thought we (women) were beginning to develop a framework for that kind of life we could lead, still married, still committed to family, still engaged in the outside world. And I've just been surprised I guess by the assumptions that bear little resemblance to how all of us -- not just me -- make our way through this uncharted terrain.''
Where do we still get lost in this terrain? At the White House door? In the territory marked partnership? At the women's caucus Tuesday morning, Bill Clinton tells the audience of women, ''We have to say that building up women does not diminish men.''
Harvard Business School's Rosabeth Kantor says our trouble is with teams as much as with mates: ''We don't understand teams in America. We have this idea there has to be one leader, one CEO. So we can't help comparing couples. We can't see it as both-and. It's either-or.''
But more acute is this disparity between our view of marriage as a merger -- two people as one -- and our view of what it means to be a successful individual. It's not easy for women to be seen or to feel both professional and coupled.
Ask any woman who ever felt awkward bringing her husband to a work event. We have few models of ''two-some-ness,'' as Sissela Bok once described it, relationships in which men and women remain two but together.
As Hillary Clinton knows well, ''We're all trying to work this out. We're all trying to find our way and we don't have a common language.'' In the era of public partnership marriages, she says, ''I may be on the front line.''
Front lines are notoriously unsafe places. Cookies or not -- the one I tasted could have used some more chocolate chips -- there is no make-over in the making. A whole generation lives on these front lines now. Hillary Clinton has just become the most visible resident.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.