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Clinton's Exhaustive Prep Work For State Hearing Pays Off

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At the opening of Sen. Hillary Clinton's confirmation hearings for the post of Secretary of State on Tuesday, the ranking Republican on theSenate Foreign Relations Committee offered a bit of perfunctory praise for the former first lady.

"President-elect Obama has boldly chosen the epitome of a big leaguer," said Sen. Richard Lugar, who spoke of Clinton's confirmation as a certainty. "Her qualifications for the post are remarkable... Her time in the Senate has given her a deep understanding of how United States foreign policy can be enriched... She is fully prepared to engage the world on a myriad of issues that urgently require attention."

The sentiments may have been customary Senate pleasantries. But Clinton, over the course of several hours, proved the Indiana Republican correct. Her confirmation hearing was a tour de force, one that demonstrated not just her breadth of understanding of the policy issues, but the meticulous preparation that she has brought to most every political task in her career -- and, likely soon, Foggy Bottom.

Pressed by her soon-to-be-former Senate colleagues, Clinton fielded questions on topics ranging from the impact of the Law of the Sea treaty on Alaska, to Russia's purchase of a Serbian gas utility, to the piracy crisis off the coasts of Somalia.

"I've never seen anybody know so much about so much," Chris Matthews, a sometimes-critical voice on the Clintons, would gush on Hardball later that day.

If Clinton's performance was, as Matthews claimed, virtuoso, it was owed to hard, behind-the-scenes preparation. According to a source close to the Obama transition, in the process of preparing for the hearing, the former first lady met or at least spoke to every member of the Foreign Relations committee. The in-person meetings were, at times, lengthy with some lasting up to an hour. She "devoured" briefing books prepared by officials at the Department of State -- an undertaking that not only prepped her for grilling but brought her up to speed on the gamut of issues she will face at Foggy Bottom.

Clinton and her staff held several mock hearings, often lasting several hours each. Wendy Sherman, who heads up the Obama transition team's State Department Agency Review Team, played a leading role in prep work. Jim Steinbeg and Jack Lew, Clinton's choices for her deputies at State, also participated, in addition to Andrew Shapiro, a Clinton Senate staffer, and Jake Sullivan, a senior policy staffer on her campaign.

The long hours, aides say, helped her get a better sense both of the major and obscure obstacles that lay ahead. It also educated her on the pet projects and concerns some member bring to their committee assignments. During one particular sequence, Clinton was pressed by six different Senators on six unique and occasionally provincial topics.

Bob Corker (R-TN) asked her about management structure of the State Department. Russ Feingold (D-WI) solicited her position on how to resolve the crisis in Darfur. Dick Lugar then asked about his most passionate topic, nuclear arms control, after which Barbara Boxer (D-CA) discussed the plight of women in third world countries, particularly Afghanistan. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) followed suit with a plea for a more "vigorous" approach to Latin America, before discussing the reported imprisonment of a Florida contractor by the Iranian government. Finally, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) asked about America's "role as an Arctic nation."

Would the ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty be a priority, she wanted to know?

"Yes, it will be, and it will be because it is long overdue," replied Clinton.

"Well," said Murkowksi, "I'm -- I'm very pleased, very encouraged to hear that and truly look forward to the opportunity to be working with you to advance these issues."

The back-and-forth underscored not just the depth of Clinton's understanding of the issues but the senatorial demeanor she could bring to the new post. Not everything, of course, went entirely smoothly. Clinton demurred from taking direct positions on diplomatic negotiations with Iran and Syria when pressed by committee chairman, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA). And she did not relent to releasing more information on the donors to her husband's initiatives -- a chief complaint from her, primarily, GOP detractors. Both Clinton and her husband have agreed to disclose large swaths of previously private information. But her refusal to immediately make public any donations of $50,000 or more from any source drew particular scorn from Republicans on the committee.

In the end, however, it was hard for members of the other political party to suppress the positive impression Clinton had left.

"Congratulations, Senator Clinton," concluded John Barrasso (R-WY). "I always found you to be very prepared, very thorough, very thoughtful. And I'm sure you're going bring all of those same things to the State Department."