WASHINGTON — Her mantra is "strength and experience," and Hillary Clinton hopes, in a dangerous era, that it will overpower her chief competitor for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.
From forcefully speaking on behalf of women's rights, visiting 82 countries as first lady and serving as a New York senator on the high-profile Armed Services Committee during a time of war, Clinton has wrapped herself in a cloak of experience — and drawn a sharp distinction with Obama, who's served in the Senate less than three years.
But being a well-traveled first lady isn't the same as being a president. And having years of experience traveling the world isn't the same as making wise decisions; her 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq war has dogged her throughout the campaign. So in some quarters Clinton's claim to foreign-policy expertise is met with skepticism.
"Dick Cheney had both strength and experience, and that hasn't worked out so well over the past several years," noted Justin Logan, a foreign-policy analyst at the Cato Institute, a libertarian research center. "Strength and experience are good, but what about judgment? That's the essential thing."
How much should visiting 82 countries as first lady count?
"It wasn't photo ops and fancy dinners," said Melanne Verveer, Clinton's chief of staff when she was first lady. "It was going to villages, to cities, looking at the tough challenges facing people. . . . That gave her a very broad perspective and a sophisticated vision of America's place in the world."
Even granting that, Clinton's foreign-policy experience pales in comparison to two other Democratic competitors.
Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is among his party's most respected voices on foreign policy after 35 years in the Senate and has been mentioned as a potential secretary of state.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson had a substantive foreign-policy role as United Nations ambassador during the Clinton administration. He's also negotiated personally with some of the world's most dangerous people as a diplomatic troubleshooter.
Clinton sought to widen the judgment gap with Obama this week after he said at a debate that he'd be willing to meet, without condition, during his first year in office, with hostile foreign leaders such as the presidents of Iran, North Korea and Venezuela.
Clinton said she wouldn't, not without first ensuring that prior, lower-level diplomatic efforts had been effective, and that the meetings wouldn't simply be propaganda tools for U.S. opponents.
The next day, as Obama clarified his answer to stress the need for diplomatic process, Clinton ridiculed his initial response as "irresponsible and frankly naive."
Then her campaign trotted out former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to suggest that Obama would mimic President Bush: "You can't just kind of show up and have an event. That's what has been the problem. President Bush does events. He doesn't really do detailed diplomacy."
Former aide Verveer said Clinton had gained from watching her husband's administration, "seeing what it takes to get to the higher moments and to get through the lower moments."
While much of a first lady's role on the international stage is ceremonial, Clinton did become a vocal advocate for global education and women's rights. Her partisans say she frequently exhibited sound — and creative — judgment in these matters.
What some consider her finest hour as first lady came at a 1995 United Nations conference in China. She gave a speech decrying human-rights abuses, declared "women's rights are human rights" and subtly castigated China's intolerance of dissent.
Phil Singer, a Clinton spokesman, called the China speech a seminal moment that ruffled feathers but delivered a much-needed message that "resonates to this day."
Verveer recalled a 1999 trip to Macedonia, where refugees from Kosovo were threatening the economy. Clinton met with top Macedonian officials to thank them for helping the refugees and successfully urged the American clothing company Liz Claiborne to keep ordering from local factories it had been planning to cut orders from, saving thousands of jobs.
"She understood that country has pressures on it, and we had to do something to respect what they were going through and try to help them in creative ways," Verveer said. "To me, that's a reflection of a willingness to understand the diplomatic situation."
Ultimately, though, "there's no guarantee that experience translates to presidential smarts," said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution, a center-left research center. "There just isn't any school for being president. It's not being first lady. And she made one helluva slip-up in Palestine."
He was referring to a 1999 visit to the West Bank. Suha Arafat, the wife of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, used a U.S. grant presentation to accuse Israelis of using poison gas against Palestinians. Clinton sat by silently, and later kissed Suha Arafat.
Clinton's spokeswoman initially called Arafat's comments "a local issue" that the first lady wouldn't address. Hours later, Clinton issued a statement denouncing the comments, after her political opponents had made hay of it. She wrote in her memoir that neither she nor anyone else in the U.S. delegation had understood the translation until later.
As a senator, Clinton joined the Armed Services Committee in 2003, a post that burnished her national-security credentials. Obama is on the Foreign Relations Committee and chairs its European Affairs subcommittee.
"She was conscientious, she took hold and showed a good understanding" of security issues, said a committee colleague who asked not to be named because he's advising another presidential campaign. "There was a generally favorable response to her performance."
But her most high-profile vote was her support for authorizing the Iraq war in 2002.
She did so without reading the 90-page classified National Intelligence Estimate that the Bush administration used to make the case for war, according to "Her Way," a recent biography. The full document included dissenting views on the threat Iraq presented. Only a few senators read it; one of them, former Florida Democratic Sen. Bob Graham, said it helped persuade him to vote against authorizing the war.
Clinton has since turned against the war. Obama opposed it from the start and has tried to make this a key distinction between them.
"On the most important issue, they came to very different conclusions," said Bill Burton, an Obama spokesman. "Democrats are going to decide who's exhibited the best judgment."
(William Douglas contributed to this report.)