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It’s clear that Hillary Clinton has excelled at her job as Secretary of State.LUCAS JACKSON/Reuters

For a week every fall, America's foreign-policy apparatus relocates to New York for the opening session of the United Nations. Whole floors of the Waldorf Astoria are turned into a miniature State Department, where the corridors bristle with uniformed security guards, as well as admonitions not to take them for granted ("ATTENTION: Hallways are not cleared for classified discussions").

On a Monday afternoon, in the corner suite on the 34th floor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the U.S. Secretary of State, arrived for a meeting with Mohamed Magariaf, Libya's brand-new president.

It was their first meeting – just two weeks after militants had attacked the U.S. consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi, killing four Americans, including ambassador Christopher Stevens.

Both hands folded on the table, Ms. Clinton didn't even glance at the cookies placed in front of her. Nor did she signal to her team (each country had eight staffers seated around the large oval table). Instead, she simply nodded, her face impassive, as Mr. Magariaf gave an opening statement in Arabic, which a translator relayed in sections into English.

But as he spoke, a Libyan aide scribbled a handwritten note and passed it to him. And at the end of his prepared remarks, Mr. Magariaf did something unexpected. He looked directly at Ms. Clinton and said, in English, "We will not be a burden."

For a moment, the formal protocol vanished. The two leaders locked eyes and a broad smile broke out on Ms. Clinton's face.

It's too early to say whether Libya will or will not be a burden on the United States, but it has emerged as a major test for Ms. Clinton, and a lightning rod in this election. The two candidates have sparred repeatedly in their debates over the violence in Libya and how the Obama administration handled the aftermath. And those issues will affect Ms. Clinton's legacy, which just two months ago seemed unblemished as she cruised to the announced end of her tenure after four years.

In some ways, though, it's clear that Ms. Clinton has excelled at her job. She has become a trusted adviser to President Barack Obama, the man who had vanquished her in a bitter primary. She has carved out new dimensions for her role, particularly with regards to women's rights. She has used her extensive travel to promote the image of an America engaged with the world and deepen relationships with leaders abroad.

In the words of one veteran U.S. envoy, it is as though she is on a "constant campaign trail and the candidate is the United States of America."

Ms. Clinton, 65, claims she is done with the other kind of campaigning. But her denial does little to change the fact that the woman who might have been president in Mr. Obama's place remains the front-runner for a future Democratic nomination.

No matter who wins next month's election, Ms. Clinton has become a sort of shadow candidate – the next viable alternative for voters to consider.

Ms. Clinton's résumé is worth repeating: the ambitious young lawyer who became a political spouse; the political spouse who became the first lady of the United States; the first lady who became a New York senator; the senator who was the first woman to nearly win a presidential nomination; the presidential contender who, in the end, became secretary of state.

The interesting thing about her stature, though, is that it now feels inevitable – when, in fact, it was anything but.

As first lady, Ms. Clinton was a target for vitriol, both for her role in White House scandals and policy flops. During the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, commentators felt free to remark on everything from her voice (labelled shrill) to her cleavage (on one occasion, barely visible) to her personality (in Mr. Obama's own withering phrase, "likeable enough").

But fast-forward four years. She is hailed in the press as a "rock star diplomat." She has travelled to more countries than any of her predecessors (110 at last count; her aides turned down requests for an interview, citing her schedule). And her approval rating – now 66 per cent – matches that of her husband, former president Bill Clinton.

World leaders are "interested, in effect, in appearing with her," says Thomas Pickering, a former U.S. ambassador who is heading the official inquiry into the Benghazi attacks. "Not just as a Secretary of State but as a political leader of importance in the U.S."

Also impressive, he says, "she has found a way to develop that without stepping on the President." Ms. Clinton, once Mr. Obama's rival, is now a loyal surrogate. In the wake of Benghazi, she publicly took responsibility for any security lapses, drawing fire away from the commander-in-chief in an election season.

Even more remarkable, a group of Senate Republicans said her willingness to accept responsibility was "laudable." Once upon a time, using Ms. Clinton as a punching bag would have been second nature for the opposing party; now, there appears to be no political advantage in doing it.

Ms. Clinton commands genuine respect, both at home and abroad. Several people who have worked closely with her in recent years – some of whom were Obama loyalists, or who had never met her before – say they are impressed by her intelligence, seriousness, sense of humour and jaw-dropping stamina.

She takes binders of briefings home and returns the next day armed with detailed questions for the authors. She often arrives in a foreign country in the middle of the night, rises before dawn and completes a full day of meetings, remaining alert and composed even as her aides – and the travelling press corps – droop.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former director of policy planning at the State Department (whose own ruthless schedule drove her back to academia), says Ms. Clinton is "probably the most professional person I have ever seen in terms of her ability to divorce whatever [she] may be thinking or feeling … from the job at hand."

That ability to compartmentalize served Ms. Clinton well after the 2008 election.

When Mr. Obama tapped her for the Secretary of State job, pundits saw it as a tactical masterstroke – a way to co-opt his one-time adversary for the Democratic nomination. One of Mr. Obama's favourite books is Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals , which describes how president Abraham Lincoln appointed political foes to his cabinet in a time of crisis.

But Ms. Clinton is also a student of history – and early on she made a decision that there would be no backbiting or disloyalty in this "team of rivals." "She set the tone," says James Steinberg, Ms. Clinton's former deputy at the State Department who is now dean of the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. "Everybody followed it."

On a rainy evening last month in New York, several hundred people packed into a university auditorium to hear a panel of experts debate U.S. foreign policy.

The discussion of Ms. Clinton's role went something like this: She has done a wonderful job, but it's hard to find her fingerprints on important decisions. Instead, the key priorities for foreign policy – Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Middle East – have been driven by the National Security Adviser and Mr. Obama.

Sometimes Mr. Obama does not even discuss his thinking at meetings, said Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. He goes back to the Oval Office to settle on a choice of action.

Certainly, Ms. Clinton is not Henry Kissinger, or James Baker, or even Richard Holbrooke – a dealmaker who makes things happen. Over all, her tenure has been a period of "putting out fires and solving problems that the administration inherited," a former senior White House official says, "not a time for great initiatives in foreign policy."

What she has done, however, is rehabilitated the role of diplomacy in the national security arena, partly by building an unusually close tie with Robert Gates, the former secretary of defence. And she built critical relationships in a world that is no longer so amenable to the blunt exercise of U.S. power.

For example, in one of the thorniest knots in the U.S. foreign policy arena – the relationship with Pakistan – Ms. Clinton has been a steady proponent of dialogue with its fragile civilian government. Even when she had a difficult message to convey, she "always positioned herself as a friend, who was telling you as much what was in your interest as much as in America's," says Husain Haqqani, who served as Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S. from 2008 to 2011 and now teaches at Boston University.

In September, 2011, he recalls, Ms. Clinton confronted Pakistan's foreign minister over a cross-border militant organization responsible for deadly attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan. When the Pakistanis cited their official position, denying any knowledge of the group's havens in their country, Ms. Clinton, calm but firm, put her foot down, citing U.S. intelligence to bolster her point.

"There is no silver bullet solution to Pakistan," says Vali Nasr, a former foreign-policy adviser to the President and a professor at Johns Hopkins University. But Ms. Clinton knew to "constantly work at them to do a little bit more, a little bit more."

Mostly, Ms. Clinton remains a pragmatic politician, one who prefers not to tilt at windmills. Colleagues say that's an advantage in dealing with foreign leaders: She understands their electoral calculus, but doesn't accept it as an excuse.

And she has pushed to reshape policy in less visible ways. Ms. Clinton played a key role in the Obama administration's "pivot to Asia" – an attempt to rebalance military and diplomatic resources to the region – and its embrace of economic statecraft. Alone among Mr. Obama's top advisers, she supported a military intervention in Libya, disagreeing with Robert Gates, then secretary of defence, and National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon, who favoured caution.

In the end, the decision was the President's, but Ms. Clinton diligently worked to prepare the field. Travelling in Europe and the Middle East, she corralled wavering members of the coalition that backed the multinational intervention in Libya, persuading the United Arab Emirates, for instance, to stay on board.

It's unclear whether Ms. Clinton's contribution to the Libya mission will be hailed or pilloried in the long run. "If in five years, Libya is a semi-stable, successful democracy, people like Hillary Clinton and [United Nations Ambassador] Susan Rice will look good," says Robert Kaplan, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank. "If, on the other hand, Libya has dissolved into some chaotic state…"

Ms. Clinton draws hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people to her public events abroad, inelegantly dubbed "townterviews" (a cross between "town hall" and "interview").

Barkha Dutt, one of India's most well-known television journalists, hosted such a forum in Kolkata, where Ms. Clinton – speaking slowly and clearly in a deep voice whose accent retains traces of her Midwestern childhood – answered pointed questions, including some from teenagers, about the U.S. role in the world for an hour.

"The fact that she's willing to sit there and take questions from a 16-year-old child – it's so charming, that's half the battle won," Ms. Dutt says.

She "manages to combine the impression of being deep while being fun."

Indeed, the idea of Ms. Clinton as a humourless scold – always the stuff of caricature – has fled during her time at the State Department.

She submitted her own entry to a wildly popular Tumblr account – Texts from Hillary – that spoofed her reputation as, well, a bit of a bad ass. She was photographed drinking (gasp) a bottle of beer and dancing with her staff during an evening out in Colombia.

And the woman who once said that if she wanted to knock a world event off the front page, all she had to do was change her hairstyle has, in fact, changed her hairstyle. She wears it loose and cascading to her shoulders, or sensibly tied back.

Even in one of the world's busiest jobs, friends say, Ms. Clinton finds time to reach out when someone is ill or a family member passes away, with a call, a visit or an invitation to dinner.

Kristin Mannion, a senior consultant at Korn/Ferry International in Washington, D.C., recalls that several years ago, when she underwent heart surgery, Ms. Clinton seriously offered to make her a tuna casserole and was the first person to call her hospital room when she emerged from the operation.

If anything, Ms. Clinton's friends say they worry about the toll of her constant travel on her own health. For her part, she insists that she is looking forward to stepping off the "high wire" of national and international politics (although she recently opened the door to staying in her current job a little longer than originally planned).

"It has been an absolutely extraordinary personal honour and experience," she said in a recent interview with Marie Claire magazine. "But I really want to just have my own time back. I want to just be my own person."

Her daughter Chelsea has said Ms. Clinton is eager to become a grandmother.

Ms. Mannion, who got to know Ms. Clinton during her time as a senator, says she has seen a growing calm in her friend.

"I feel like she has a real peace and serenity about her contribution."

But that is not to say she is done contributing. If Ms. Clinton does choose to run again for the presidential nomination in 2016, it's hard to conceive that any Democrat could challenge her. Other contenders will remain in suspended animation until she decides whether to run.

"It's very much up to her," says Mr. Pickering, the former U.S. ambassador. "I don't think there's anything she needs to be ashamed of."

Part of the reason Ms. Clinton is such a popular figure now is exactly because her job keeps her far from the muck of the domestic political scene. That distance is one of the things she loves about her post, she has said.

For now, even her husband says he has "no earthly idea" what his wife will do. But asked whether she still has the appetite to make history, she has demurred: "I hope to be around when we finally elect a woman president."

Road warrior

Hillary Clinton remains one of the most tireless secretaries of state. Her schedule is punishing (although she and her husband are celebrating 37 years of marriage, they are rarely in the same place) and her friends are concerned about her health. Her travel this term alone would be a slog for the toughest road warrior.

900,000 miles travelled

110 countries visited

3 visits to Canada

According to a recent Gallup poll, Ms. Clinton's current public-approval rating matches that of her husband, former president Bill Clinton – and is ahead of this year's White House contenders.

66% for Hillary Clinton

52% for Mitt Romney

51% for Barack Obama