Here's Hillary Clinton in an interview Sunday with the Des Moines Register's Jennifer Jacobs: "I expect to be judged on my merits, and the historic nature of my candidacy is one of the merits that I hope people take into account."

That's a sentence she never dared utter during her 2008 campaign when her gender -- and her historic chance to be the first woman to be the presidential nominee of either party -- seemed to be swept under the rug by a deeply misguided campaign strategy.

The idea -- I guess -- was that if Clinton put her gender at the forefront of the campaign, voters (especially male voters) would wonder if she was "up" to the job. (Whatever the heck that means.) That judgment, blamed on strategist Mark Penn but ultimately followed by Hillary, led to a Democratic primary campaign in which she was cast as the status quo while then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois was the change agent. And you know how that turned out.

What's amazing about that decision was that as far back as 2007, Clinton's most appealing trait to voters was the fact that she would have been the first woman ever elected president; in Gallup polling at the time, 22 percent said the historic nature of her candidacy was the single most appealing part of her bid -- more than double the share who named any other character trait.

Seven years later, the story was the same. Roughly one in five voters (18 percent) told Gallup in 2014 that Clinton's potential status as the first female president was the most attractive trait about her. As Gallup's Frank Newport wrote at the time:

Clearly Clinton's "unique selling proposition" is that she would be the first woman president. Nearly one in five Americans mention this historic possibility as a positive, including 22% of women, 27% of 18- to 29-year-olds, and 30% of Democrats.

Regardless of why they screwed it up last time, this version of the Clinton campaign appears to have figured out what had been staring them directly in the face for the last seven-plus years. From the emphasis on her status as a grandmother to the centrality of her own mother's struggles in her kickoff speech, Clinton is putting her gender at the core of this campaign.

That's of critical import not solely because it shows she learned the right lessons from the 2008 campaign but also because her gender (and the historic nature of her candidacy) provides Clinton her best possible response to the already underway Republican attack that she represents the past.

That hit has the potential to do severe damage to Clinton's chances of winning the White House next November. As we've written before in this space, presidential elections are almost always about the future and the candidate best able to present himself or herself as the right choice to lead the country into that future. Hillary's problem is that so much of who she is -- and so much of the strengths she carries as a candidate -- are rooted in the past. If and when she, at 67 and having spent the last two decades in the national spotlight, has to run against someone like Marco Rubio (age 43), it is going to be a real challenge for her to win the "future vs. past" argument.

Unless, that is, Clinton can show voters how electing her would be the biggest change the presidency has ever seen: After 43 men in the job, she would be the first woman.

"I may not be the youngest candidate in this race," Clinton said in her (re)announcement speech on Saturday in New York. "But I will be the youngest woman president in the history of the United States! And the first grandmother as well."

That's the exact right message for Clinton. It only took most of the past decade for her to find it.