NORTH CONWAY, N.H. -- "I would not be co-president."
There. She said it.
It is as important a part of Elizabeth Dole's message these days as the heroic, sepia-toned portrait of her husband she paints on the campaign trail, trying to cast the now struggling front-runner as the rightful heir to the throne.
And it is a theme that Mrs. Dole, an aggressive campaigner and former Reagan and Bush official, sounds in a million ways:
In her vow to return to her job as president of the Red Cross even if her husband, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, lands in the White House next year. In her promise to take on "charitable giving" -- a far cry from health-care reform -- as her pet issue if she becomes first lady. In her insistence that she will not sit in on cabinet meetings because well, hey, been there, done that.
And then, in case you missed the point, she says it flat out: "I don't see it as a co-presidency. You don't elect two people. You elect one." She says it not with malice or sarcasm -- that is not Liddy Dole's style -- but with a ruby-lipped smile that is really more of a wink. After all, we all know what she's really saying:
She would not be Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Funny, but the two political spouses and ambitious career women actually have much in common. Mrs. Clinton: class president at Wellesley College, Yale Law School, high-powered career as an attorney. Mrs. Dole: student body president at Duke University, Harvard Law School, high-powered career as a government official, including two cabinet posts.
And the similarities continue, almost eerily so. Mrs. Dole, who hails from a wealthy North Carolina family and has a personal fortune of about $2 million, has a history of investments and financial arrangements -- some with a former Dole adviser who eventually went to prison for tax fraud -- that are now sparking questions of the Whitewater/cattle futures ilk.
What's more, Mrs. Dole's receipt of hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees -- from groups that had policy matters before her husband in Congress -- is generating the kinds of conflict-of-interest concerns that have dogged the current two-career couple in the White House.
But Mrs. Dole, sitting by a roaring fire at a ski lodge here looking none the worse for wear after an afternoon on the slopes (with local TV cameras catching her careful, gentle turns down the mountain), would like to draw the distinctions.
"I think she's a bright person," Mrs. Dole says diplomatically when asked about Mrs. Clinton's controversial tenure as first lady. "She's very dedicated. I don't agree with her on many of the issues, and we have a different philosophy, but I think she's doing what she feels is right for America. I just have to leave it to each person to decide what it is that's best for her. For me, TC want to do it in a different way, which would be carrying out the humanitarian goals of the Red Cross."
It is this Southern politesse, combined with political savvy, that makes Mrs. Dole such a formidable campaign force.
"She personifies what women really want," says June Steele, a business consultant who heard Mrs. Dole speak at a GOP breakfast here. "Someone who can break through the glass ceiling, but retain her femininity.
"I admire Hillary's ability to speak," Ms. Steele goes on, "but I don't know why she had to be so gung-ho about everything."
Few women in the nation have been as gung-ho as Mrs. Dole, one of 24 trailblazing women in her Harvard Law School class of 550; a political appointee of five presidents; a former secretary of labor and secretary of transportation; a woman who for years was considered a possible candidate for vice president, or even president.
But she has not been in Washington for three decades for nothing. She knows just how far -- and when -- to push the envelope.
While she spoke enthusiastically during her husband's 1988 presidential bid of wanting to take on "a whole plateful of issues, as many as possible" as first lady, she now says she will pile up her plate at the Red Cross rather than the West Wing.
And while she seemed to enjoy the half-jokes back then of a "Dole/Dole" ticket -- and the murmurs that the wrong Dole was running -- these days, she squashes those sentiments flat as a flat tax.
"One politician in the family," half of the nation's No. 2 power couple politely insists, "is enough."
Slim, charming, decidedly stylish (she wears high-heeled suede boots to trudge through the New Hampshire snow and somehow keeps her hair and makeup political-spouse-perfect even while skiing), Mrs. Dole, 59, is the genuine Southern article, the steel magnolia of legend.
Greeting potential supporters after a speech, pumping maximum sincerity and cordiality into every "Thank you very much" or "It's a privilege to be with you today," you can almost see her at the debutante balls of her youth, or as the May Queen at Duke.