Hillary Clinton speaks during a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation event Monday in New York. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
Opinion writer

The International Association of Fire Fighters attracted 10 possible presidential candidates to the union’s conference in Washington this week, including Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren on the Democratic side and Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz for the Republicans.

But one prominent invitee, Hillary Clinton, sent regrets — and that’s regrettable, because she could use some help putting out fires these days.

The soft launch of Clinton’s not-yet-declared candidacy has been engulfed in twin conflagrations: the disclosure that the Clinton Foundation had accepted donations from dodgy countries and the discovery that she conducted her business as secretary of state using a personal e-mail account. Her advisers have managed to fan the flames by being clumsy first responders.

On the other hand, maybe it’s just as well that Clinton didn’t join the firefighters in the capital this week. They aren’t exactly blazing with enthusiasm for her candidacy. As I worked the gathering at the Hyatt on Capitol Hill, I detected a sense of buyer’s remorse among the union faithful when I asked about the seemingly inevitable Clinton coronation.

“I don’t know that I’m thrilled,” said David Morse, from Los Angeles County.

Joe Alderete III, from San Antonio, told me that he was still hoping to “see if a Warren or a Biden steps up.”

Chris Mahon of Ventura, Calif., when asked whether he could get fired up about a Clinton candidacy, paused. “It’s a good question,” he said. “I would be satisfied with her.”

Union officials were no more ebullient. When I asked Lou Paulson, head of the California firefighters group, about how his members felt about Clinton, he hesitated. “I don’t believe it’ll take much to have our members support her,” was his diplomatic formulation.

And Mahlon Mitchell, head of the Wisconsin firefighters, feigned ignorance when asked about support for Clinton. “Hmmmm,” he said. “We don’t know who the candidates are.”

But we do know. It’s Clinton and . . . nobody — unless you think Martin O’Malley or Jim Webb or Bernie Sanders can make a serious run for the Democratic nomination, in which case you probably also believe in the tooth fairy.

The two most viable alternatives to Clinton spoke at the IAFF gathering Monday: Biden, who projects sincerity, blue-collar appeal and solid competence; and Warren, who, with her passion and righteous indignation, could ignite a populist movement. But the senator from Massachusetts doesn’t want to run, and the vice president would like to but sees no way to upend the Clinton juggernaut.

And so the Democratic faithful are more or less resigned to Clinton drawing little primary opposition, and hoping that the disastrous launch of her candidacy doesn’t get worse. There’s potential it will, because, as Amy Chozick of the New York Times noted, Clinton’s efforts this week to commemorate the anniversary of her 1995 women’s rights speech in Beijing are now being undermined by the discovery that the Clinton Foundation accepted money from Middle Eastern countries known for violence and discrimination against women.

Monday’s IAFF meeting was less an audition for would-be Clinton challengers than a glimpse of how things might have been if the Democrats hadn’t allowed themselves to be locked up so quickly by Clinton.

Biden established his working-class bona fides with the union members. “In a little state like mine, the fire hall is where you get married,” he said. “It’s the country club for the guys and the women I was raised with.” Referring to Republicans as “the other outfit” and “the other team,” and throwing in Bidenisms such as “malarkey,” Biden told the firefighters, “I resent the attacks on you by those, particularly, in the other outfit that see you as an obstacle to overcome, a drag on the community, instead of the heart and soul and essence of the community.”

Warren followed Biden’s folksiness with a brief and incendiary speech, at points shaking with the ferocity of her delivery. “There’s plenty of money for billions of dollars in subsidies for big oil companies. There’s plenty of money for special breaks for the owners of thoroughbred racehorses. There’s plenty of money for extra deals for the folks who run NASCAR racetracks,” she said. “So why is there no money to make our country work? I’ll tell you why. It’s because the game is rigged.”

After her speech, she joined Massachusetts firefighters for a photo, then gave an impromptu speech about the outrage that “you are out there with your begging bowls” while billions in tax breaks go to corporations. “We are in trouble,” she said. “We are up against the ropes. . . . We’ve got to have fundamental change.”

It was a fiery message. If they don’t already, Democrats will come to regret that their nominating contest lacks such a spark.

Twitter: @Milbank

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