WASHINGTON -- At a swank Democratic fund-raiser this month, Ann W. Richards, the mischievous former governor of Texas, warmly welcomed Hillary Rodham Clinton as "the next junior senator from New York."
Then, after a pregnant pause, Richards added, "and of course, her lovely husband, Bill."
It was a brief glimpse at a state of affairs that, Mrs. Clinton herself acknowledged at that event, "just brings an enormous smile to my face": the perpetual-pol Bill Clinton as a second-fiddle political spouse.
Will the former president of the United States soon be attending senatorial-spouse tea parties? Will he stand silently and smile adoringly behind his wife as she makes policy pronouncements, or hold her hand on the campaign trail to prove that the Clintons still believe in marital bliss and family values?
"You get a lot of strange pictures when you think about it, none of which make a lot of sense," said Leon E. Panetta, a former Clinton chief of staff, with a laugh. "I can tell you, he will not just be satisfied with going to lunches and teas."
White House aides and friends of the first couple have already begun thinking about what role the president should take if his wife decides to run for the Senate seat of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat who is retiring next year. Bill Clinton has quietly taken on an informal role in his wife's nascent campaign, White House aides say, helping the first lady plan her electoral strategy, shape an image and formulate a platform.
"He is a political spouse right now," said one top presidential adviser.
But as the first lady moves toward a formal announcement of her candidacy, she must decide whether her husband's backstage role should be taken public. Some of the Clintons' friends say the president can do no wrong as they imagine him morphing to husband in chief. Indeed, for a man who has lived and breathed politics for most of his adult life, the prospects of one more campaign -- even if it is his wife's -- must be irresistible as his own tenure comes to a close.
"I think he'd be a great political spouse," said Bill Curry, a former political and policy adviser in the Clinton White House. "He already has the best adoring gaze since Nancy Reagan."
No doubt, after the first lady stood loyally by the president throughout the public humiliation of the Monica Lewinsky affair and the ensuing impeachment trauma, the president owes his wife a lot, Panetta said. And as penance, some presidential associates say, Bill Clinton appears willing to do just about anything his wife asks of him.
"Clinton has told me he'll go run an election district in New York if that's what she wants," said Harold Ickes, Mrs. Clinton's lead political adviser.
`Whatever role she wants'
Advisers say the president's proper role will become apparent if and when the first lady's campaign gains altitude.
"I think it's fair to say that he will play whatever role she wants," said one of the first lady's strategists. "He wants to do everything he can do to help her win. If that means endorsing her, he'll endorse her; if that means disavowing her, he'll disavow her."
In his campaigns, Clinton fared well in the Empire State, even in the less-Democratic upstate regions that would be critical to his wife's success. In the 1996 presidential election, he picked up 41 of the 51 counties located outside New York City and its immediate suburbs.
By contrast, in 1998, Democrat Charles E. Schumer picked up only six of those upstate counties, though he still managed to unseat Republican Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato with a solid showing in the city and suburbs.
But Republicans and Democrats alike say the 2000 election will be different. The president might have garnered extraordinary support during the impeachment saga, but the partisanship and gridlock that have gripped Washington since his acquittal could be ushering in a sense of "Clinton fatigue" among voters that could keep the president off the campaign trail.
`Last thing you would want'
"I don't think I'd want him around," said Ed Gillespie, a Republican political consultant. "The last thing you would want is having Bill Clinton out there campaigning for you."
They might not put it so bluntly, but even Clinton aides agree, suggesting that the president is unlikely to show up on the campaign trail very often, if at all. After a lifetime of working on her husband's behalf, Mrs. Clinton needs to establish herself as a political entity in her own right. In his own advice to his wife, the president said, he made the same point.
"You have to know, you need to know, why you want the job," the president told reporters late last month, recounting the conversation he had had with his wife during their Florida vacation. He said he told her to devise 30-second, five-minute and half-hour versions of her standard campaign speech and to make clear to the public her reasons for running.