Chelsea Clinton wows charity crowd with off-the-cuff tribute to her late …

With her mother’s cadence and her father’s gift for extemporaneous speaking, Chelsea Clinton wowed the crowd Saturday night at a major fund-raiser for the Big Sister Association of Greater Boston.

The former first daughter dropped her planned remarks and instead delivered a five-minute, off-the-cuff tribute to her grandmother, Dorothy Rodham, who died earlier this month at the age of 92.

She then seamlessly segued into an introduction of the evening’s honoree, philanthropist and Democratic donor Elaine Schuster, a close friend of her family, with a poise that will only fuel speculation Chelsea is the next Clinton destined for politics.

Already one New York paper has speculated she may run for Congress in the Westchester area if Representative Nita Lowey, a 74-year-old Democrat, announces her retirement before the 2012 election.

Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to step down as secretary of state after that election, regardless regardless of whether President Obama wins a second term.

Unless Chelsea Clinton runs, that would end a strain of a Clinton in federal office since her father, Bill Clinton, was elected president in 1992 (her mother joined the US Senate shortly before the family moved out of the White House in 2001).

The New York Times reported today that Clinton will begin work this morning at NBC News, where she will prepare stories for the network’s “Making a Difference” series.

Clinton intends “to donate all the money she earned from NBC to the Clinton Foundation and the George Washington University Hospital in the name of her grandmother,” the Times reported.

NBC already employs one other former first daughter, Jenna Bush.

Most Americans have never heard Chelsea Clinton speak, even though she is 31. She was sheltered from the media throughout her years in the White House, and was afforded similar privacy at Stanford University, her subsequent studies at Oxford and Columbia University, and her early career at McKinsey Co. and the Avenue Capital Group.

But she has been assuming a higher public profile since her mother made her own bid for president in 2008, even introducing her at the Democratic National Convention.

On Saturday, speaking publicly for the first time since her grandmother’s funeral, Clinton sought to connect Dorothy Rodham’s uphill life story with the mentoring relationship between girls and women fostered by the Big Sister Association.

“Her past really, indeed, did become the future in my mother and, hopefully, in me,” she said.

Clinton recalled how her grandmother was born to teenage parents in Chicago, left alone in an apartment at age 3 and given a meal ticket to a diner down the street.

“Her earliest memory was actually being rescued from that diner by a passing fireman and being taken to the firehouse for Thanksgiving dinner,” she said.

Rodham’s parents divorced and, at age 8, she and her sister went sent – alone – on a train to her grandparents’ house in California.

“My grandmother hoped that possibly this would be the moment her life would change. Sadly, it did not. She went to work in the fields and received no more love or nurture there than she had in Chicago,” Clinton said.

Rodham set off on her own at age 13, landing a job as a nanny. In exchange for room and board, she ran five miles each day – each way – from school to home to care for three children. That family loved her, asked what she thought about things, and inquired about her dreams, said Clinton.

The primary dream was to go to college, but, unable to afford it, she enrolled in secretarial school before getting married and having four children.

“She built the home for her children that she had never had but that she had seen and could believe in. My mother is a product of my grandmother’s indominable spirit. And my mother did go to college, and … she did have a family, have a career, and, yes, she did run for president.”

Before Dorothy Rodham died on Nov. 1, “she knew deep in her core that she had finally transformed all of the challenges that she had confronted in life into values embedded in my mother, in my uncles, and in their children. And for my grandmother, until truly the last day, what was most fundamental to her was always paying it forward.”

Then, reaching her pivot point to honor Schuster, Clinton said: “One of my grandmother’s adages was that life is a team sport, what my mother calls ‘it takes a village,’ and Elaine’s life has embodied that ethos.”

When she reached the microphone, Schuster showed the admiration was mutual.

“As a grandmother, I know exactly how your grandmother would feel if she could hear the words that you spoke about her tonight. Wonderful genes were passed down to your mother, and to you,” said Schuster.

Among those in the crowd at the Museum of Fine Arts was Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

“I was really impressed by her,” the mayor said of Clinton. “I never heard her speak in public before – first time – and the way she handled herself, she really did a good job with it.”

Menino also lauded the Big Sister Association with praise that echoed back to Dorothy Rodham’s own life story.

“It’s just amazing what these adults and women do for these young kids,” he said. “They come from different backgrounds. Those kids didn’t ask for those backgrounds, but those adults who come into their lives really make a big difference.”

Glen Johnson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.

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