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ATTACKS CAN STILL TAKE FIRST LADY ABACK

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Halfway through her husband's bumpy term, Hillary Rodham Clinton has set modest goals: Make some improvements in health care, take criticism less personally and raise a healthy, happy alien baby.

Alien baby?OK, the extraterrestrial remark was just a joke, her little moment of levity with a roomful of students studying the staid history of first ladydom. But she made her point: Don't believe everything you read about her.

In an expansive appearance Tuesday night addressing school prayer, her power, her family and the media, Hillary Clinton turned again and again to the pain and anger caused by criticism.

"Sometimes I read about myself and say, `Ooh! I don't like her at all,' " the first lady said, cringing when asked about the public's perception of her.

She placed much of the blame on unspecified critics and the natural byproduct of a media system in which public figures "are filtered through so many people's perceptions."

"On the presidential level, it is just astonishing to me the kind of speculation and the attacks and the criticism," she said at a George Washington University seminar on first ladies. "I try to take such matters seriously, but not personally."

But it's hard.

"I don't always succeed," she said. "Sometimes things are beyond the pale and your breath is taken away."

Not dwelling on it any longer, the first lady broke into a broad grin and mentioned a tabloid report that she was pregnant with an alien child.

"But I will say, if the alien baby comes, we're ready and looking forward to it," she cracked. "I've always wanted a sibling for Chelsea."

Almost drowned out by laughter, she added: "I'm not sure I'd know exactly how to take care of it, but I'd sure learn."

In a serious moment, the first lady said she already learned - the hard way - that voters thought her plan for health-care reform was a big-government boondoggle.

"I understand that and, obviously, regret it," she said. "But that was neither the intention nor, from our perspective, what would have been the ultimate outcome."

The solution: Retreat to the long-held Republican line that moderate changes will be enough.

"I do want to work on whatever health care reform we can achieve . . . through incremental changes," said Clinton, after making it clear she will continue to be the administration's public voice for health-care reform.

Despite the concessions, she insisted that the system is still in crisis. "These problems . . . are back, and they're not going to get better on their own," she said.

On other issues, Hillary Clinton:

- Fretted about feeling isolated in the White House, saying she yearned for as normal a private life as possible. "I am going to get out more."

- Declared her daughter, Chelsea, 14, well-adjusted. But she said it's hard to avoid spoiling her with the trappings of her station. "Adults really want to do things for their children and you have to be careful about that," she said.

The Clintons will continue to insist on a low profile for their daughter. "Because she's so well adjusted, you won't be seeing much of her."

- Said instilling prayer at home is more important than forcing it in school. "I think that prayer and faith start in the family. I think what we ought to be trying to figure out is how to get prayer . . . in the family."

- Admitted that she and her husband don't always agree on every issue. "But I won't tell you what I disagree with him about."

- Compared what she views as a nitpicking media to a carping "mother-in-law coming to Thanksgiving dinner."