WASHINGTON - FDR had his fireside chats. Richard Nixon held conversational exchanges with small groups in his 1968 campaign. Now Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is telling Americans, "Let's chat" - just you, me, and an intimate group of 300 million or so Americans.

Clinton's effort to launch her campaign as an online "conversation" has a political pedigree that extends well beyond the "listening tour" from her 2000 Senate campaign or the "conversations on health care" that she held during her unsuccessful health-care overhaul effort of 1993.

Her husband, Bill Clinton, held his own listening tour in Arkansas before deciding to run for president in 1992.

The campaign-as-conversation is a gimmick, some political consultants say, but not necessarily a bad one.

"They've got to soften Hillary, and this is a way to do it," said Dane Strother, a Democratic consultant unaffiliated with any of the presidential campaigns.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a political communications expert who directs the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said that for Clinton, it's a good way to meet the challenge of appearing both competent and caring that voters seem to demand of female candidates.

And so Clinton planted herself on a couch for three nights this week for upbeat "Webchats" from "Hillary TV," as her Web site styles itself. Her first campaign trip to Iowa today was billed as a "conversation with Iowans."

The format was also tried by Democratic candidate John Edwards this week.

The Republican National Committee's opinion on what it calls "Hillary's screenplay" is that the "promised 'conversations' turn into short, screened, and seemingly scripted productions."