An early look at how Clinton deals with crisis

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In a presidential campaign focused on the future, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama spend a lot of time talking about their pasts.

Both lean heavily on tales of early, formative experiences - she running a law clinic in Arkansas, he as a community organizer in Chicago - to show they understand the problems of average people.

Now the race for the Democratic nomination is coming down to its decisive contests, with Clinton locked in a do-or-die struggle to wrest that prize from an increasingly confident Obama, who appears poised to make history.

Voters in battleground states such as Ohio and Texas are still trying to take the measure of the two contenders - and for both candidates, these vignettes are a critical part of forging bonds with fellow Democrats.

Obama, for instance, grew up in Hawaii and briefly lived in New York - but returns time and again in speeches to the streets of Chicago's South Side, where he tried to help residents of the city's forgotten neighborhoods build a better life.

He offers that time to illustrate his real-life experience - a gritty counterpoint to Clinton's time in Washington, a way to combat charges that his stints in the Illinois state legislature and the U.S. Senate don't add up to the foundation to be president.

For Clinton, her time in Arkansas is a key component of the argument that her three decades of public service have prepared her to be president on Day One.

As the first woman with a serious chance to lead the nation, it's a way for her to demonstrate how she fought to improve the lives of families and children.

Hillary Rodham Clinton often invokes her "35 years of experience making change" on the campaign trail, recounting her work in the 1970s on behalf of battered and neglected children and impoverished legal-aid clients.

But there is a little-known episode Clinton doesn't mention in her standard campaign speech in which those two principles collided. In 1975, a 27-year-old Hillary Rodham, acting as a court-appointed attorney, attacked the credibility of a 12-year-old girl in mounting an aggressive defense for an indigent client accused of rape in Arkansas - using her child development background to help the defendant.

The case offers a glimpse into the way Clinton deals with crisis. Her approach, then and now, was to immerse herself in even unpleasant tasks with a will to win, an attitude captured in one of her favorite aphorisms: "Bloom where you're planted."

It also came at a crucial moment in her personal life, less than a year after she followed boyfriend Bill Clinton down to Arkansas - a time when she struggled to gain a foothold in a new state while maintaining her own professional identity.

"Bill was out front," said Tim Tarvin, one of Rodham's student assistants at the University of Arkansas Law School legal aid clinic. "But Hillary was running just as hard behind the scenes, battling just as hard for acceptance."

In May 1975, Washington County prosecutor Mahlon Gibson called Rodham, who had taken over the law clinic months earlier, to tell her she'd been appointed to represent a hard-drinking factory worker named Thomas Alfred Taylor, who had requested a female attorney.

In her 2003 autobiography "Living History," Clinton writes that she initially balked at the assignment, but eventually secured a lenient plea deal for Taylor after a New York-based forensics expert she hired "cast doubt on the evidentiary value of semen and blood samples collected by the sheriff's office."

However, that account leaves out a significant aspect of her defense strategy - attempting to impugn the credibility of the victim, according to a Newsday examination of court and investigative files and interviews with witnesses, law enforcement officials and the victim.

Rodham, records show, questioned the sixth grader's honesty and claimed she had made false accusations in the past. She implied that the girl often fantasized and sought out "older men" like Taylor, according to a July 1975 affidavit signed "Hillary D. Rodham" in compact cursive.

Echoing legal experts, Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson says the senator would have been committing professional misconduct if she hadn't given Taylor the best defense possible.

"As she wrote in her book, 'Living History,' Senator Clinton was appointed by the Circuit Court of Washington County, Arkansas to represent Mr. Taylor in this matter," he said. "As an attorney and an officer of the court, she had an ethical and legal obligation to defend him to the fullest extent of the law. To act otherwise would have constituted a breach of her professional responsibilities."

Seen as an aggressive defense

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