Hillary Rodham Clinton is trying to strike the right balance between staying out of the daily political maelstrom and setting herself up for a possible second presidential run. But her fans and foes are making that difficult.
Nearly six months after departing the State Department, Clinton finds herself in the middle of an early effort by both parties to prepare for her return to politics even as she keeps to a schedule of highly paid private speeches, work on her book and her family’s global foundation.
Clinton has not said whether she’ll seek the White House in 2016 but grassroots activists are already at work on a super political action committee called Ready for Hillary, which has rallied local supporters, started a fundraising campaign and rolled out prominent endorsements.
Republicans, meanwhile, vow to dissect her work during the Obama administration — including last year’s deadly assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi — and use the former first lady as a fundraising tool.
The efforts to define Clinton, who carries the scars of being seen as an inevitable president during her 2008 campaign against Barack Obama, underscore her tricky balancing act.
If she acts too political, the strong approval ratings built up from her globe-trotting, above-the-fray role as secretary of state could suffer. If she allows the presidential talk to become too loud, she might get stuck with the inevitable nominee tag, making her vulnerable to a liberal upstart in a Democratic primary.
Yet if she avoids the limelight too much, she might create an opening for another Democrat to emerge or allow the steady criticism from Republicans for her tenure at State to sully her image.
Republicans are in the early stages of an effort to chip away at her record at the State Department. American Crossroads, the GOP group tied to Republican strategist Karl Rove, released a web video in May that suggested Clinton was less than truthful in the Benghazi case, an episode they noted happened “all under Hillary Clinton’s watch.” An independent review last year blamed the State Department for inadequate security but largely absolved Clinton of wrongdoing.
Separately, American Rising, a Republican super political action committee led by Matt Rhoades, who served as Republican Mitt Romney’s campaign manager, created the Stop Hillary PAC and has been raising money off a potential Clinton campaign. One email request, from Ted Harvey, a Colorado state senator and co-founder of the group, warned that “massive forces are aligning to begin a coronation of ‘President Hillary.'”
Republicans say they would be remiss to give Clinton the time to quietly build a campaign behind-the-scenes without scrutinizing her record.
“You have to play by the rules of the game. That’s what was done to Mitt Romney and other candidates,” said Danny Diaz, a former adviser to Romney’s presidential campaign who is not involved with either group. “To operate under different sets of rules would be foolhardy.”
Ready for Hillary, meanwhile, has no official ties to Clinton. But the group is encouraging her to run and laying the groundwork for a future campaign. Veterans of the Clinton White House like Craig T. Smith and Harold Ickes are advising the group, which is building a network of supporters online and holding local rallies outside Clinton speeches.
Ickes and former Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., organized three finance briefings for donors and potential donors in New York in late June and the group will release its first fundraising report later this month, providing an early glimpse of its resources.
Some donors have privately expressed concern with the focus on Clinton so early, even while other Democrats like Vice President Joe Biden and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley are viewed as potential candidates. They said it could backfire and create an aura of inevitability for Clinton that hurt her last time. Smith said they were trying to address just the opposite.
“If it was inevitable there would be no need for us to do it at all,” Smith said.
Yet some Democrats aren’t sold on the proposition. While Smith said he would have received a “red light” if the Clintons didn’t approve of the super PAC‘s role — he said he hasn’t heard anything negative — their effort is just getting off the ground and viewed with hesitation by some donors.
“I’d be surprised if many national donors want to spend the cash on a new grassroots organizing effort geared toward 2016 when we just raised $1 billion to create the best ground campaign in history,” said Wade Randlett, a major Obama donor based in California’s Silicon Valley. He said the Obama campaign offshoot, Organizing for Action, has been able to keep party activists engaged.
Clinton’s most ardent supporters, including her husband, caution that voters should not read too much into her activities. The former president said in May his wife was “having a little fun being a private citizen for the first time in 20 years” and said the constant speculation was “the worst expenditure of our time.”
Still, Hillary Clinton has spent time making her positions known on issues dear to the Democratic base. Via her much-buzzed about Twitter handle, she issued joint statements with her husband on the Supreme Court’s striking down of a key provision in the Voting Rights Act and its rulings in two cases pertaining to gay marriage.
While Republicans see Clinton as a major threat in 2016, GOP officials report there is little appetite among top party donors to commit resources to anti-Hillary efforts right now.
“There are more immediate targets,” said Charlie Spies, who led fundraising efforts for a pro-Romney super PAC last year. “The most important thing Republicans can be focused on right now is keeping control of the House of Representatives in 2014. Once that is accomplished we can turn our sights to taking over the White House in 2016.”
Associated Press writer Steve Peoples in Boston contributed to this report.
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