Hillary Rodham Clinton has begun building a national political organization, softening her liberal image and taking a lead role in Democratic criticism of President Bush -- steps toward a potential campaign to become the first woman president.

Former President Clinton speaks about his wife's run for the presidency as a matter of "when," not "if," say people who have discussed it with him. Several of her associates said she is eyeing 2008 as the year to run.

Sen. Clinton said Friday that she will not break a pledge to complete her six-year term that expires in 2006.

"I have no plans to run for president," she said in a telephone interview.

Her actions suggest the former first lady is positioning herself for a history-making race. She has:

-- Contributed nearly $600,000 to 73 Democratic candidates across the country through her political action committee and has raised even more money by headlining fund-raisers. She has helped candidates in key presidential states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.

-- Defended her husband's presidency against attacks from Republicans while sharpening her criticism of Bush.

-- Courted the party's moderate wing with a keynote speech to the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. She has sided with Republicans or centrist Democrats on bankruptcy, welfare and anti-Hollywood legislation.

"It used to be that Democrats came to Washington hoping to work for Ted Kennedy," said Donna Brazile, Al Gore's campaign manager. "Now they want to earn their stripes with Hillary."

Clinton has miles to go to override criticism by Republicans that she is a liberal Democrat whose major policy initiative -- the 1993 universal health care plan -- was a political and policy disaster.

"I think it's always hard for somebody with a full record and a range of interests to be portrayed ... in soundbites," Clinton said. "I was the first person in the country to call for teacher testing" as first lady of Arkansas "and I took enormous heat for that. I supported welfare reform in the Clinton administration and I took enormous heat for that."

Several advisers and friends close to Clinton, speaking on condition of anonymity, say she wants a Democrat to win the White House in 2004. If Bush wins re-election, however, she would almost certainly be a candidate four years later, they said.

The sources include a longtime adviser, a close friend and a senior Democrat who have talked to Clinton about her future.

"I don't know who those people are or where they're getting their information from because they've never had a conversation with me they can quote," Clinton said. She flatly ruled out even a vice presidential bid in 2004.

Her husband was at a small dinner party in February, in Perth, Australia, when someone asked if Sen. Clinton would run for president. One person described the former president's unhesitating reply, "Not in 2004," as reflexive, confident and leaving the clear impression that his wife had already decided to try in 2008.

It is impossible to characterize Sen. Clinton's prospects with any certainty; the sources close to her could be trying inflate her standing among Democrats or may be caught up in the Clinton-for-president speculation buzzing about the party's grass roots.

The possibility of a historic race is fueling the interest, Clinton said.

"I think that's part of the speculation and wishful thinking, because we all hope a woman will run in our lifetime," she said.

At last week's conference of the Democratic National Committee, Clinton's appearance by videotape produced a thunder of applause and polls show she is popular among party activists.

Her political action committee has contributed about $15,000 to New Hampshire candidates in tight races and about $21,000 to those in Iowa -- the leadoff states as Democrats choose their presidential candidate every four years.

She attended a fund-raiser in February for Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and helped raise $20,000 at a New York fund-raiser for New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, who is running for the Senate.

She will open her Washington home Sept. 18 to raise money for Julie Thomas, a congressional candidate from Iowa.

"She's cultivating talent and friends across the country," Brazile said. "Some day, she may want to harvest her crop."