BOSTON — It’s been almost a year since that well-known political pundit Sharon Stone explained why Hillary Clinton couldn’t win the presidency. “A woman should be past her sexuality when she runs,” intoned Ms. Stone. “Hillary still has sexual power, and I don’t think people will accept that.”

I never figured out if this was a compliment or an insult to the 59-year-old senator. After all, Henry Kissinger once described power as the great aphrodisiac. Did aphrodisia shrink a woman’s political power?

Of course, this was only one of innumerable pink grids put over Hillary’s campaign. Her announcement was preceded and followed by endless stories on whether America was “ready” for a woman president. Every move she makes, every breath she takes, every outfit she wears, she is stalked by the media looking for clues to the female electoral cycle.

This was an inevitable part of being the First Serious Woman Candidate for President. And Hillary has said repeatedly, “The fact that I’m a woman, the fact that I’m a mom, is part of who I am.” Her candidacy was bound to have a “You Go, Girl!” edge.

It was no surprise that Hillary announced her candidacy in a webcast from a living room decorated in Early Suburban Soccer Mom. It’s no surprise that she’s just launched a kind of girlfriend’s social networking campaign. And it’s no surprise to see her campaigning under the slogan: “Let the Conversation Begin.” (Memo to the campaign: This female-friendly approach may strike terror in the hearts of husbands who cringe when their wives say, “We have to talk.”)

But something is happening on the long, tortured path to the first primary. Hillary’s been de-sexed — excuse me, Sharon — de-gendered. She already is seen as less like the woman candidate for president and more like the establishment candidate. She’s becoming less a messenger of historic change and more a messenger of old politics.

It was once impossible to be both a woman and an establishment candidate. But in this primary, Hillary is outflanked on the left by both Barack Obama and John Edwards. The “wicked witch of the left,” the “designated devil,” the “Lady MacBeth,” whose image blesses the baby onesies sold at conservative conventions — “Hillary Scares Me” — is now the centrist in the Democratic field.

This has put the Hillary-hating industry into a stock market swoon. The “vast right-wing conspiracy” is losing traction. Even conservative Richard Mellon Scaife has closed up his ATM for Clinton Bashers Inc. She’s now, for better and/or worse, positioned less as a scary feminist and more as a calibrating centrist, less of an uppity woman and more of the programmed scion of the establishment.

Obama has become the thoughtful, ruminative, philosopher-king candidate. But in the process, Hillary has come to look like the strong candidate. This may be due in part to her refusal to apologize for her vote on the Iraq war, a decision that many in hyperactive punditry regard as a huge mistake. But there’s a subtext. Like it or not, it is part of this woman’s morphing into the tough guy in the race.

Obama has also matched or even trumped Hillary on the “historic” front. Gradually her image as “the woman” faded to her image as the “experienced” candidate. Not to mention the candidate most ready to take on the Republican attack machine. “When you’re attacked, you have to deck your opponents,” says the former first lady. You go … girl?

Not even the most calculating strategist could have planned this. She didn’t choose her status as establishment candidate anymore than she chose being attacked from the left by Hollywood mogul David Geffen. But what better enemy in the race for votes among the mainstream parents who regard the Hollywood culture as their opponent? And what better position for a woman running in the general election as a leader?

There is a certain irony in sticking a politics-as-usual label on the first serious female contender. Or seeing a breakthrough candidacy cast as same-old. Democrats thirsty for change and hostile to the war may well see Obama as the fresh voice and Clinton as old guard.

But have you noticed how the arguments about whether she’s “electable” have dimmed? Have you noticed how the chatter about this woman’s leadership ability has faded? Have you noticed how the stories about whether America is “ready” for a woman have receded?

Is Hillary running as a woman? I remember when Pat Schroeder was asked that question and quipped, “I didn’t know I had other options!” But Hillary is already less the “woman candidate” and more the “candidate.” And the “conversation” has barely begun.

Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at symbol)

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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