HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Hillary Rodham Clinton made her debut on another campaign trail yesterday, waving the banner for the health care reform effort she is spearheading.
On her first trip as head of the president's task force on health care reform, Mrs. Clinton continued to push the edges of her role as first lady.
Accompanied by Tipper Gore, the wife of Vice President Al Gore, she sat in on several hours of a statewide health care conference at the Pennsylvania State University campus here and got an earful of complaints, hard-luck stories and suggestions for reform.
She listened, scribbled notes and nodded as a parent "representing the middle class" told the first lady of her inability to get family health insurance coverage because of her children's chronic health problems.
She heard businessmen talk about skyrocketing costs of coverage, nurses talk about the need for preventive services and physicians talk about the need to limit expenses if they are going to be asked to limit costs.
The first lady attacked the health care system but offered only the broadest strokes of an outline for reform.
"We cannot go on the way we have been going. . . . Controlling costs is the necessary first step in not only providing universal access to health care for all Americans, but in beginning to
eliminate that sense of vulnerability and personal insecurity that affects all Americans," she told the group of 200 health care professionals, business and labor leaders and local residents.
Yesterday's trip to the conference, which was sponsored by Sen. Harris Wofford, a Pennsylvania Democrat, was the first of several trips the first lady has planned around the country. They are part of a nationwide campaign the administration is waging to rally public support for the health care plan Mr. Clinton has promised to deliver in his first 100 days and to build support for Mrs. Clinton as chief navigator of perhaps the most complex domestic issue confronting the president.
"At the end of this process, you may never need a headband again," Mr. Wofford joked to the first lady after one participant noted that he had lost his hair during years of grappling with health care issues.
With a degree of overt power extraordinary for a first lady, Mrs. Clinton has wasted no time in taking a high-profile approach to her role as chief adviser on health care reform.
No sooner was she appointed by her husband to head the task force of Cabinet secretaries, members of Congress and key administration officials than she was on Capitol Hill, lobbying chief Democrats and Republicans.
Yesterday, she switched from lobbying to public relations hat, demonstrating her commitment to reaching out to citizens much as she did as first lady of Arkansas, when she traveled to every county in the state to lobby for education reform.
And, whatever she lacked in health care expertise, she seemed to make up for in attentiveness, noted participants, who said they were impressed.
"I think she has some grasp of the issues," said Donna Nativio, who trains nurse practitioners at the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing. "It's still early in the game, but she's listening hard to what people who live and breathe this issue have to say."
Unlike President Clinton, who peppered his economic summit with frequent questions and remarks, the first lady sat quietly through most of the presentations yesterday.
Earlier in the day, she and Mrs. Gore, who traveled by military plane, met privately with physicians and administrators, then visited patients in a physical therapy room at St. Agnes Medical Center in Philadelphia.
Before attending the afternoon session of the Harrisburg conference, they sat in on a lunch there with about 25 participants, including Bonnie Albrecht of Westchester, Pa., the mother of two children with chronic illnesses.
"I told Mrs. Clinton how vulnerable I felt with the health care coverage I have now," said Ms. Albrecht, with her 10-year-old daughter Miranda, who was diagnosed with cancer several years ago, by her side. "She was very understanding, very sympathetic.
"She shook my hand and made me feel very at ease. She said I certainly had my share of tragedies."
Ms. Albrecht, a Republican, said she was won over.
Mrs. Clinton has been generating as much debate as fascination in her unprecedented dual role of hostess and policy-maker. And some of those mixed feelings were reflected at yesterday's conference.
About a dozen fans, most of them university staff members on their lunch break, stood outside to greet the first lady.
"I'm happy to see her take the lead on health care," said Wanda Bowers, assistant to the director of student affairs. "But I don't discuss her with my friends. Most of them are more conservative, and I'd just as soon preserve relationships."
Even Mr. Wofford conceded that Mr. Clinton was "taking a risk" in sending his already controversial wife on this high-wire act.
"The only thing riskier than what you've undertaken to do," he told his guest, "is to do nothing."