Chelsea Clinton: Hillary's Secret Weapon?

The former first daughter has become a formidable surrogate for N.Y. senator.

Feb. 27, 2008 — -- Chelsea Clinton has changed dramatically from her days as an awkward teenage first daughter.

Now the poised, well-spoken former White House dweller is on the campaign trail, stumping for her mother, Sen. Hillary Clinton, as a powerful surrogate who knows the Democratic presidential candidate's policy positions inside and out.

One thing that hasn't changed since her White House days is that she remains extremely private, not granting any interviews with the press or talking on the record.

However, in the last three months, Clinton, who turns 28 today, has gone from silent daughter to confident campaigner. She has visited more than two dozen states since December and has visited 50 college campuses.

The strain of it all is getting harder to hide.

"Forgive my voice. I've been working hard for my mom. Unfortunately, I'm not as practiced at this as some are, so my vocal chords are a bit out of whack," she told students at Texas Tech University.

Despite the weak voice, she spent more than an hour arguing passionately for her mother, speaking of the senator in the way only a daughter could.

"My mom has been making positive change in people's lives for longer than I've been alive," she told the crowd at Texas Tech.

She knows her mother's stand on the issues, sometimes better than the staff who accompany her. She's fielded questions on everything from health care to net neutrality, becoming a consummate politician.

Putting Her Life on Hold

If Clinton is bothered that she's had to put her life back in New York on hold, she never lets it show. She's on leave from what she jokingly calls her "geeky" hedge fund job, where she reportedly pulls in more than $200,000 a year.

Occasionally, back in New York, she is spotted at a Starbucks, sipping on an iced espresso, or with boyfriend Marc Mezvisnky.

"Chelsea and Marc lead a pretty quiet life," said New York Magazine's Lloyd Grove, who wrote a cover story profiling Clinton this week. "The one thing Chelsea does here is she is on the board of the American Ballet school, couple of galas and such she is involved in — Marc will come to those, but he is careful when the paparazzi is there to keep his distance. The two of them don't like to pose for pictures together."

Tight-Lipped Around the Press

Clinton's no-interview policy was a decision she made in order to maintain some level of privacy. The logic is that if she opens the door even an inch, it will open a mile and she will become a public persona and will have to talk to everyone.

According to Lisa Caputo, Hillary's press secretary when she was first lady, it's an extension of what her parents began.

"When President Clinton was elected, he and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton made a decision to draw a line in the sand around Chelsea and her zone of privacy," Caputo said.

Caputo was asked to help protect Clinton from the prying media. Her mother was acting on advice she had sought out from Jackie Kennedy Onassis.

"We talked about raising children in the public spotlight because she had done it with such grace and success," the former first lady told Barbara Walters in a 2003 interview. "She stressed how you could never let your child become kind of an object of all this public interest, because it would ruin them. You had to keep making sure they didn't feel entitled or indulged. And I took those lessons to heart."

Hollywood film director Harry Thomason — who is a close friend to the Clintons — said that during her father's presidency, Clinton kept a low profile.

"I don't think Chelsea is one of those people that she has ever wanted to be the center of attention," Thomason said. "We can all see that over the following years — she had plenty of chances to be the center of attention in the White House and in her college years, and she's just always chosen not to. I think that speaks well of the people who raised her."

Caputo agrees and thinks that the zone of privacy set up by her parents is one of the reasons Clinton is so grounded today.

"I think she is one of the most poised, elegant, grounded insightful intelligent young women I know," she said. "She has been able to live her life that has not been in the public eye but rather had her life have some kind of privacy and protection to it. That I think has enabled her to live this normal life that otherwise would have been very difficult to lead."

Jumping In

Clinton has kept out of politics until relatively recently. She gave her first political speech four years ago in support of Sen. John Kerry. Now she is a constant presence on the campaign trail.

"I think she's more vocal now because she has her own place in the world, and she's a highly successful businesswoman," Thomason said. "And I think she feels she can speak out and nobody thinks it's necessarily because she's been manipulated by the campaign or anything else."

It's clear she never expected to be as involved in her mother's presidential bid as she is now. Back in Iowa before the holidays, she told reporters she might spend her Christmas holiday doing a little campaigning. Instead, she hasn't had a day off in 22 days.

Her role is to parachute in to the places the senator and former president can't reach. With Illinois Sen. Barack Obama enormously popular among young people, Clinton is the one surrogate for her mother who can draw big crowds on college campuses.

But to some in the crowd, she could be the Clinton with the most political promise.

After a speech in Youngstown, Ohio, a voter asked her, "Are you sure you don't reconsider and run for office?" Clinton dismissed the question as mere "flattery," and told the voter that "my political aspirations stretch to having my mom be my president."

Caputo doesn't think that she is the political animal her parents are.

"I don't think she is at all, you know," Caputo said. "I think she's got her own life, she's pursuing her own career interests, which are outside of politics, and I think she's involved in this campaign because it's her mom and she deeply believes her mom would make a great president. And she wants to do everything she can to help her become president."

But with her genes, it's not entirely clear she will be able to resist the pull of politics.