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WHAT ROLE FOR CANDIDATE'S WIFE?

Once upon a time, a politician's wife was primarily a hostess and a reassuring totem on the campaign trail. Today the candidate's helpmate may also be a professional in her (or his) own right, independently engaged in business or public life.

When that is so, voters may wonder where the spouse's views and activities leave off and the officeholder's begin. And the potential for conflict of interest - which always attends the exercise of power - gains in complication.Just such issues are raised by Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Clinton's high-achieving wife Hillary has combined a law practice, seats on corporate boards, issue activism and appointments to public commissions with her personal roles of wife and mother. The Clintons say they have taken care to avoid conflicts of interest, but some questions have been raised.

Mrs. Clinton's work as a partner in the prestigious Rose law firm in Little Rock placed her, at least once, in the position of representing a troubled savings and loan before the state securities commissioner.

Under the Clinton administration, the Rose firm has reportedly also benefited from non-bid state contracts. According to the Associated Press, the firm has been paid $235,000 by the state since 1985.

Also worthy of voter consideration is Mrs. Clinton's activism on public policy. A former co-chair of the liberal Children's Defense Fund, she advocates comprehensive public child-care services and favors expanding children's legal rights.

It is fair to ask whether Bill Clinton agrees; his campaign takes a different slant. His theme of personal responsibility and his insistence that "there will never be a government program for every problem" seem to align him with those centrist Democrats who stress shoring up the stable two-parent family as the top pro-child priority.

At this stage of the campaign, the voters are still making the acquaintance of Hillary and Bill Clinton. These and other questions raised by a very modern partnership deserve to be explored in the coming months.