MONTICELLO, Iowa — Hillary Rodham Clinton began sketching out a progressive policy agenda and promised fresh thinking on a range of economic and other issues Tuesday, as she began her second run for the White House in the coffee shops and classrooms of small-town Iowa.
Returning to the state that threw her last effort forever off course, Clinton was met by curious voters and a media frenzy, with journalists chasing after her luxury armored van. There were no big speeches or rallies, and local organizers were told to keep throngs of supporters away.
Instead, Clinton made a point of sitting down with small groups of people — three in a coffee shop, seven in a community college vocational classroom, a handful more at a second coffee shop.
She gave a broad rationale for running for what would be a third Democratic administration in a row. And she sprinkled in a few new policy positions, including a call for changes to campaign finance laws — even raising the prospect of a constitutional amendment to clean up money in politics.
“I just felt like I couldn’t walk away from what I see as the challenges we face,” she said of her second try for the White House.
Clinton was asking for a second chance in Iowa, the state whose unique mix of national politics, local organization and high expectations dealt a devastating defeat to her 2008 run for president.
The day punctuated Clinton’s transformation from international jet-setter to American everywoman. The setting for her first campaign appearance: a remote farming town that inspired Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” painting.
“I am running to be the champion for Americans and their families, so that we can not just worry about treading water, so we can get ahead and stay ahead,” Clinton said after a discussion with students and others at Kirkwood Community College.
She met with students and instructors inside an auto repair shop that serves as a technical classroom. The scene — including a Ford sedan, parked on the floor with its hood up — provided a stark contrast to the glamorous image Clinton has projected over two decades in the national spotlight as a first lady, U.S. senator, secretary of state and, most recently, as a global celebrity collecting lifetime achievement awards and pocketing $200,000 a speech.
This trip has been small-scale by design. Clinton, the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination, is deliberately beginning her campaign on a listening tour to project humility and show that she intends to earn every vote.
The campaign mantra — go small and stay humble — is already belied by the vast fundraising operation getting underway on Clinton’s behalf in wealthy precincts far from Iowa. As she ducked into mom-and-pop shops and cafes for unannounced visits, she was trailed Tuesday by a team of campaign admakers, including media strategist Jim Margolis.
One participant at her Kirkwood stop was a single mother of three who told Clinton that the school was her only affordable option to gain skills for a career change.
Clinton spoke briefly of her own college years, although she did not mention tony Wellesley College by name, and said she had no inkling then that she would “be sitting here, telling you I’m running for president.”
Clinton’s domestic and foreign policy platform is being developed by three Democratic strategists. The roles of Maya Harris, Ann O’Leary and Jake Sullivan were first reported by Politico.
“I will be rolling out very specific policies over the weeks and months ahead that I think are going to be at the core of not only a successful campaign, but much more importantly, getting our country to work again,” Clinton told reporters.
She is expected to introduce her full policy platform in May or June, after a series of meetings like those Tuesday that will be held in early-voting states.
Among the details of her emerging platform, Clinton said she wants to fix the country’s “dysfunctional” campaign finance system. Later, in a brief interview with The Washington Post, Clinton said she has developed a plan to overhaul the way money is spent in political campaigns.
Asked about her campaign finance agenda, she said: “We do have a plan. We have a plan for my plan.”
When The Post asked about the role of Priorities USA Action, a pro-Clinton super PAC trying to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to help her campaign, Clinton shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t know.”
Even as she tries to connect with real people, Clinton also is doing political spadework in Iowa, home to the nation’s first presidential caucuses in February and a state where activists demand to be wooed.
She met privately in nearby Mount Vernon with several dozen Democratic Party activists from Linn and Johnson counties, both important bastions of liberal voters. She is expected to hold additional meetings with key local leaders and activists during her two days in Iowa.
Clinton began her day with coffee at a locally owned shop in rural Le Claire.
Among those she met was Sara Sedlacek, 33, of West Liberty, Iowa. Sedlacek is the mother of a 15-month-old child, works for Planned Parenthood and owns, with her husband, a coffee shop and wine bar.
“I was so nervous before she got there,” Sedlacek said. “What do you say to Hillary Clinton? We sat down, and it was like we were old friends.”
She said Clinton did not bring up her 2016 campaign. After caucusing for then-senator Barack Obama in 2008, Sedlacek said, “I’m 100 percent behind her now.”
The quirky caucus system is considered a key test of a candidate’s organization and momentum, and Clinton was sent reeling from a third-place finish in 2008.
Although former Virginia senator James Webb and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley appear likely to challenge her this time around in Iowa — and others will probably join the race — none are known nationally or possess a fraction of the fundraising ability Clinton commands.
Clinton advisers insist that they expect competition, and they are designing an Iowa campaign that makes her look as much like a backbencher as possible for someone who travels with Secret Service protection.
As a mark of the more personal style Clinton is adopting this time, she sprinkled details of her résumé and policy experience through her remarks at the campus and added details about her new life as a grandmother.
“I have this new granddaughter, and I want her to have every opportunity. But I want every child in our country to have every opportunity,” Clinton told the roundtable group. “That’s one of the main reasons that I decided to run,” she continued.
“Because believe me, I know that it’s not going to be easy, that I’m going to have to work hard to earn every single vote and get every caucus-goer I can round up to show up next February.”
Dan Balz contributed to this report.