As first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton did not hold a security clearance. She did not attend National Security Council meetings. She was not given a copy of the president's daily intelligence briefing. She did not assert herself on the crises in Somalia, Haiti and Rwanda. And during one of President Bill Clinton's major tests on terrorism, whether to bomb Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998, she was barely speaking to her husband, let alone advising him, as the Lewinsky scandal played out.

In seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, Clinton lays claim to two traits nearly every day: strength and experience. But as senator from New York, she has few significant legislative accomplishments. She has cast herself, instead, as a first lady like no other: A full partner to her husband in his administration, and, she says, stronger and more experienced for her "eight years with a front-row seat on history."

Her rivals scoff at the idea that her background gives her any special qualifications for the presidency, and on the campaign trail, they have increasingly been challenging her assertions of unique experience. Sen. Barack Obama has especially questioned "what experiences she's claiming" as first lady, noting that the job is not the same as being a cabinet member, much less president. And late last week, he suggested that more foreign-policy experts from the Clinton administration were supporting his candidacy than hers; his campaign released a list naming about 45 of them. Clinton quickly released a list of 80 who were supporting her, and plans to release another 75 names today.

Clinton's role in her most high-profile assignment as first lady, the failed health-care initiative of the early 1990s, has been well-documented. Yet little has been made public about her involvement in foreign policy and national security as first lady. Documents about her work remain classified at the National Archives. Clinton has declined to divulge the private advice she gave her husband.

An interview with Mrs. Clinton, conversations with 35 Clinton administration officials and a review of books about her White House years suggest that she was more of a sounding board than a policymaker, who learned through osmosis rather than decision-making, and who grew gradually more comfortable with the use of military power.

Her time in the White House was a period of transition in foreign policy and national security, with the Cold War over and the threat of Islamic terrorism still emerging. As a result, she was never fully a part of either the old school that had been focused on the Soviet Union and the possibility of nuclear war or of the more-recent strain of national-security thinking defined by issues like nonstate threats.