The first lady is leaving domestic politics - and controversies - behind as she sets off on a trip to South America aimed at boosting the political and economic advancement of women.

The trip, planned long before independent counsel Kenneth Starr issued his report about President Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky, will be Hillary Rodham Clinton's first solo journey abroad since then, although she's already been on the road 10 days this month.A congressional delegation and administrative officials, including Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo, were accompanying her to her first destination, Puerto Rico, scheduled for late Tuesday, to tour areas devastated by Hurricane Georges.

Then Hillary Clinton will head to Santiago, Chile, for the annual meeting of the first ladies of the Americas and then on to Montevideo, Uruguay, for a Vital Voices conference, a U.S. foreign policy initiative focusing on lifting women's political and economic roles, expected to draw about 400 women from across the Western Hemisphere.

"She's been committed to these two speeches for a long time," said her chief of staff, Melanne Verveer, rejecting speculation that the first lady was trying to escape the furor over her husband's affair. "You don't sort of drop in."

Nevertheless, it will provide a respite.

"She's treated like a rock star" when she goes overseas, said Theresa Loar, the State Department's senior coordinator for international women's issues. "People take a day off work. When they see her, they mob the streets and push each other out of the way to get closer."

In addition, she'll spend some time with the other first ladies, many of whom know firsthand about straying husbands.

"She'll meet with a very sympathetic audience," said Johanna Mendelson, a scholar in residence at American University with an extensive background in Latin America. "Infidelity is a given and not the exception among politicians." The wives, she said, "have chosen to accept it as a given of public service."