"Our economy and our country are much better off because American families have basically done whatever it took to make it work," Clinton said, but "the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top.”
That populist economic manifesto is the first timber in the second-time presidential candidate's emerging platform. Clinton focused Tuesday on the cost of college, and the option of practical job preparation through community colleges and elsewhere.
"There’s something wrong when CEOs make 300 times more than the American worker," Clinton said. "There’s something wrong when students and their families have to go deeply into debt" to get an education.
“We’ve got to figure out in our country how to get back on the right track," Clinton said. "Americans and their families need a champion and I want to be that champion.”
The remote Kirkwood Community College campus outside this small eastern town was as different a setting from the rally held a day earlier by Republican hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) as Clinton’s advisers could manage.
Clinton met a handful of students and instructors inside a working auto repair shop that serves as a technical classroom. Ahead of Clinton’s arrival, a Ford sedan was parked on the floor, hood up.
One student, Bethany Moore, is a single mother of three children who enrolled at Kirkwood because she wanted to change careers, and the community college was the only affordable option. She told Clinton that one of her children will also enroll there next year.
“We just have to get back to making it affordable and open for everybody willing to work for it,” Clinton said.
Another student, Ellen Schlarmann, is doubling up for simultaneous high school and college credits. She explained how it works to Clinton, who asked detailed questions.
“I’ll have two years done, almost,” when she enters a four-year university next year, Schlarmann told Clinton.
“That’s terrific. So you’ll only have to pay for two years of a four-year college,” Clinton said. “That’s a big help.... You’re a walking advertisement for how important this option is."
Clinton began the day with one of the unannounced events expected across Iowa over two days. She visited a small coffee shop called the "Jones Street Coffee House" in the city of Le Claire, a few miles away from Davenport. After greeting the shop owners, Clinton ordered a Masala Chai tea, plus a Caramellow latte and a glass of water. She sat down with three customers, and remained in the shop for about an hour.
At one point, a woman came up to her and told her that she’d been with President Obama’s campaign in 2008.
Clinton smiled. “Well, I hope I can convince you to work for me,” she said.
Afterward, the woman -- Karla Higgins, who lives in Eldridge and works in LeClaire -- said that she was on board with Clinton’s candidacy. “I want to continue with the change,” she said. “I think she can do it.”
Clinton arrived in Iowa Monday night after a road trip from New York in a chauffeured van. Photos of her occasional stops for gasoline and fast food were widely shared on Twitter and other social media. She has not spoken publicly since releasing a campaign video on Sunday.
In keeping with a carefully orchestrated rollout that focuses on the economic challenges of what Clinton called “everyday Americans,” she spoke first to a small audience of students and teachers. She is expected to also make yet-unannounced visits in small venues such as coffee shops across the state over two days of events.
The campaign mantra of go-small and stay humble is already belied by the vast fund raising operation getting underway on Clinton’s behalf in wealthy precincts far from where she debuts in Monticello, Iowa.
Senior Clinton campaign officials told reporters Monday that Clinton will be a frequent visitor to a state that has come to expect the personal touch from any candidate. Iowa’s caucuses are scheduled for February 2016.
Clinton’s third-place showing in the Iowa caucuses in 2008 was partly the result of a sense among some Iowa Democrats that as a universally known figure, the former first lady and then-senator took their support for granted. The quirky caucus system is considered a key test of a candidate’s organization and momentum, and Clinton never fully recovered.
A challenge for Clinton this time is to earn that support in the absence of high-level competition from other Democrats. Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley appear likely to challenge her in Iowa, and others are likely to join. None are known nationally or have a fraction of the fund raising ability Clinton commands.
Iowa Democrats have been waiting eight years for a competitive caucus campaign, and they demand that Clinton wage one — even if there’s no Barack Obama or John Edwards on the scene to challenge her, as they did in 2008.
Clinton advisers insist they expect competition, and they are designing an Iowa campaign that makes her look as much like a back-bencher as possible for someone who travels with Secret Service protection.
“What we are trying to do with this very first trip to Iowa is to make it very clear that it isn’t about her, it isn’t about us, this is about Iowans,” a Clinton campaign official told reporters Monday. “Everyday Iowans, their hopes, their dreams and what they want in the future.”
The official requested anonymity to preview Clinton's plans.
Iowans expect to see Clinton in their living rooms and neighborhood coffee shops and bars, fleshing out a progressive agenda on issues ranging from Wall Street reform to Islamist terrorists to climate change but also hanging out to answer questions, take some selfies or simply chitchat.
“We really are that spoiled,” said Bret Nilles, chairman of the Linn County Democrats, said ahead of Clinton’s visit.
Clinton is helped this time by an extensive ground operation in Iowa built by an outside support group, Ready For Hillary, that urged her to run again. The group’s Iowa network of contacts and supporters gives the candidate a leg up on the organization that escaped her last time, even if it also adds to the appearance that she considers herself the inevitable nominee.
That’s dangerous in Iowa, as she painfully learned.
“My party is just viscerally drawn to contests, to making sure that there’s an alternative to anyone, anytime, about anything,” longtime Clinton supporter and Des Moines attorney Jerry Crawford told The Washington Post last year. “It’s just sort of the underdog mentality you find alive and well in the Democratic Party.”
Crawford helped Ready For Hillary, and showed Clinton’s new campaign manager, Robby Mook, around during a covert Iowa trip weeks before she announced her candidacy.
“There’s a lot of criticism among some that the Clinton campaign last time was too top-down. I’m not sure that’s a fair criticism, to be honest,” Crawford said last year. “But regardless of whether it is or isn’t, it’s certainly not the way we’re doing it right now.”
Philip Rucker contributed to this report.