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Already the leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has assembled a small, ethnically diverse stable of advisers dominated by women to chart her political course over the next four years.

The primary function of this inner circle is to protect Clinton’s interests on both the state and national levels while keeping her cocooned — for the time being, at least — from the ever-present media glare. Those tasks range from ensuring Clinton takes care of her politics in the Empire State to burnishing her policy credentials in the Senate.

All of these individuals and their actions are centered in the short term on Clinton’s re-election bid in 2006; it remains unclear whether she will draw a serious challenge, perhaps in the form of current Gov. George Pataki (R), or receive a pass from the GOP.

Beyond 2006, however, this collection of strategists are positioning her for an all-but-certain presidential candidacy in 2008.

None of the inner circle contacted for this story would talk on the record about his or her role in the Clinton universe, much less about a 2008 presidential race.

A pattern does emerge, however. The people who Clinton relies on most heavily are those who have been with her the longest; she rewards the loyalty of those in the trenches with her during her tenure as first lady.

Maggie Williams, her former chief of staff at the White House, and Patti Solis Doyle, Clinton’s scheduling director at that time, are the two individuals closest to the Senator; both women have a hand in nearly every political move that Clinton makes, according to numerous interviews with well-informed sources.

Aside from Tamera Luzzato, Clinton’s current chief of staff, and Neera Tanden, her legislative director, Clinton’s circle is spread out among the high-powered political firms in the city.

The base of power is centered squarely on the Glover Park Group, where Doyle, Howard Wolfson and Gigi Georges are all employed.

Doyle works out of GPG’s Washington office while Wolfson, communications director for Clinton’s 2000 Senate bid, and Georges, former state director for Clinton, are based in New York.

Clinton also has allies at the Center for American Progress, the progressive think tank formed after the 2002 elections by John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. Tanden worked at American Progress as senior vice president for domestic policy.

The Clinton connection to American Progress could grow even stronger in the near future as Laura Nichols, the organization’s senior vice president, is being courted as a senior communications adviser for Clinton.

Outside of Clinton’s first line of advisers are a second group of confidantes regularly sought ought for advice on specific matters.

The members of this collective, which one knowledgeable source dubbed the “Alumni Association,” range from longtime friend Susan Thomases to Evelyn Lieberman, a Clinton administration veteran.

The following is a look at Sen. Clinton’s closest confidantes, culled from interviews with sources close to the Senator.

Inner Circle

Patti Solis Doyle: Doyle, who is Hispanic, worked in the White House as the then-first lady’s scheduling director, a jack-of-all-trades position. Doyle is best known for her work at Clinton’s leadership political action committee — HILLPAC— where she oversaw all fundraising activities for the Senator. HILLPAC had raised more than $960,000 in 2004 alone as of Oct. 14. Through her “Friends of Hillary” Senate committee, Clinton had raised $10.8 million since being elected in 2000. One other interesting Solis Doyle fact: her brother, Danny, is a ward alderman in Chicago.

Maggie Williams: Williams, who is black, is one of several members of the group with strong ties to both former President Clinton and Sen. Clinton. She served as chief of staff for much of Clinton’s time as first lady then went on to serve in the same capacity for Bill Clinton when he left office. Williams left that post in August.

Tamera Luzzatto: Luzzatto has been Clinton’s chief of staff since she came to the Senate in 2001. Luzzatto is primarily charged with navigating Clinton through political minefields in the Senate. She trained for her current role with Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) from 1984 to 1999. She also served stints on the presidential campaigns of Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.

Karen Persichilli Keough: As state director, a position she has held since February 2002, Persichilli Keough is charged with keeping Clinton’s New York political house in order. She is a veteran of New York politics, having worked on the unsuccessful 1998 gubernatorial bid of then-New York City Council Speaker Peter Vallone (D) and as deputy state director for the Clinton-Gore 1996 campaign.

Howard Wolfson: A partner with the Glover Park Group, Wolfson is the point person on Clinton’s press relations. Wolfson earned his stripes in the Clinton world as communications director for the Senate race and went on to serve as executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 2002 cycle. Wolfson was a near-constant presence on television in the final months of the 2004 presidential campaign as a senior communications adviser at the Democratic National Committee.

Harold Ickes: Perhaps the best known of all Clinton’s close advisers, Ickes is heavily relied on for his political savvy and connections. He served as deputy chief of staff to then-President Bill Clinton and played a prominent role in the formation and activities of the Media Fund and America Coming Together, the two largest progressive 527 organizations operating in the 2004 election.

Mandy Grunwald: Grunwald created the television images for Clinton’s 2000 campaign and has already signed up to do the same in 2006. She and pollster Mark Penn work hand in hand on strategy, message and media.

Mark Penn: Clinton’s pollster during the 2000 campaign, Penn was also a trusted consultant in the Clinton White House.

Neera Tanden: Tanden joined Clinton’s staff roughly a year ago, after spending time following the 2000 campaign at the Center for American Progress. During Clinton’s Senate race, Tanden was deputy campaign manager and policy director. Her main focus both in the Senate office and within the inner circle is to shape policy positions for maximum appeal.

Ann Lewis: Lewis will formally join Clinton’s staff in January, taking over for Doyle at HILLPAC. She will be tasked with managing Clinton’s constituency politics and helping Wolfson on the communications front. Lewis, who served a stint as communications director at the White House, is also the past head of the Women’s Vote Center at the DNC.

Alumni Association

Susan Thomases: A longtime friend of the Clintons, Thomases is also very close to Ickes.

Cheryl Mills: Mills served as deputy White House counsel during the Clinton administration.

Melanne Verveer: A former chief of staff to Mrs. Clinton at the White House, Verveer now heads Vital Voices, which promotes women into leadership positions globally.

Lisa Caputo: Caputo served a press secretary for Clinton from 1993 to 1996 and is now a regular presence on the talking-head circuit.

Evelyn Lieberman: Another friend to both Clintons, Lieberman served as undersecretary of state for public affairs and public diplomacy during the administration.

Gigi Georges: Now at Glover Park Group, Georges previously served as New York state director for Clinton in the Senate.

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