As Hillary Rodham Clinton hopscotched around small-town Iowa this week with a media scrum covering her every move, the spectacle seemed to push her potential Democratic rivals further off stage.
But the former secretary of state’s much-anticipated entrance into the 2016 presidential race is not all downside for those Democrats. It has already spawned fresh opportunities for those trying to emerge as an alternative.
For starters, they’ve been given their own, albeit smaller, national stage from which to criticize Clinton now that she’s in.
Amid wall-to-wall coverage of Clinton’s Iowa swing this week, former senator Jim Webb of Virginia chuckled during an appearance on MSNBC on Wednesday as he assessed her remarks lamenting that the pay of corporate chief executives has become disproportionately high compared with workers’ compensation.
“I started talking about that nine years ago,” Webb said.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), in a meeting with Bloomberg News reporters and editors, questioned Clinton’s willingness to take on wealthy interests. “Is Hillary Clinton, are other candidates, prepared to take on the billionaire class?” he asked.
And former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley drew national attention by releasing a short video highlighting past speeches in which he asserted that gay nuptials should be a “human right,” not a state one. It came right after Clinton’s own news that she would support Supreme Court action making same-sex marriage a constitutional right, a shift from her previous position that the issue should be left to the states.
Clinton’s Sunday announcement and subsequent road trip marked the unofficial start of the contest on the Democratic side, prompting a much broader audience to tune in. In coming weeks, the other candidates could benefit as activists in Iowa and New Hampshire who consider it their civic duty to give everyone a look step up their efforts, party activists say.
“I think her official announcement obviously brings an added level of attention, and a lot of that will be going to her,” said Nathan Blake, a Democratic activist in Des Moines who worked on Barack Obama’s campaign eight years ago and has yet to commit to a 2016 White House hopeful. “But here on the ground in Iowa, a lot of it will be going to other candidates when they show up.”
Clinton begins the contest with a remarkable advantage. A Washington Post-ABC poll two weeks ago showed her as the choice of 66 percent of Democrats nationally, more than 50 points ahead of her closest rival. She is expected to raise vastly more money than the others, and she has picked up scores of endorsements from fellow Democrats in recent days.
Still, some strategists suggested that a sort of primary-within-a-primary could be on the way, as Webb, O’Malley, Sanders and perhaps others maneuver to become the leading Clinton alternative.
“The question will be, can anyone break from the pack?” said Tad Devine, a longtime Democratic strategist who is advising Sanders on a possible bid for the Democratic nomination.
O’Malley, who has been among the most visible of the non-Clinton hopefuls, made another bid for attention Thursday, outlining an economic agenda during a speech at Harvard University and speaking out against a major free-trade pact that President Obama is seeking.
O’Malley said that the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade and regulatory deal, would “hurt middle-class wages and ship middle-class jobs overseas.” Clinton supported the pact as secretary of state but hasn’t taken a position on it as a candidate.
O’Malley and Webb — neither of whom have formally declared — both made swings through Iowa last week and shared a stage at a Democratic dinner in Polk County. Both drew standing ovations and got plenty of time with key party activists. O’Malley is scheduled to appear before a large audience next weekend at a state party convention in South Carolina, another early nominating state.
The day after Clinton announced, O’Malley sent an e-mail to his supporters saying: “There are moments in our history when new leadership is needed to move our country forward. This is one of them.”
He added: “One of the many great things about the people of Iowa and New Hampshire is that they take seriously and personally their responsibility to vet anyone offering themselves for higher office.”
There is also an upside to the fact that neither Webb or O’Malley is getting as much media attention as Clinton, said Anita Dunn, a Democratic strategist who worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign.
“They’re not going to be under the microscope every day, and that’s an advantage,” she said.
Both O’Malley and Webb began trying to set themselves apart well before Clinton officially got in.
At last week’s dinner in Polk County, neither mentioned Clinton by name. But O’Malley talked up the need for tougher regulation of Wall Street, as he has in other appearances. Some Democrats say Clinton has been too cozy with the financial sector.
Webb highlighted his early opposition to the Iraq war. As a senator, Clinton voted in 2002 to authorize military action.
Lincoln D. Chafee, a former U.S. senator and governor from Rhode Island who is also exploring a Democratic presidential bid, has criticized Clinton on Iraq as well, suggesting that her vote should disqualify her from being commander in chief.
Dick Harpootlian, a former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman who would like to see Vice President Biden get into the race, said the coming weeks could be crucial in determining whether Clinton has any credible competition for the nomination.
But a bigger factor than what the other contenders say is her own performance, Harpootlian said.
As recent days in Iowa showed, Clinton is going to great lengths to engage in retail politics and show she can relate to average citizens in small settings, something that’s always been a weakness for her, he said.
“If she can overcome that, she may garner no serious opposition for the primaries,” he said.
Biden has said he will make a decision about the race next month, Harpootlian added.
Devine said that if Sanders gets in the race, his best strategy will be to ignore Clinton to the extent possible and “do his own thing.”
So far, Sanders, who plans to make a decision on whether to run by the end of this month, has been talking about income inequality, climate change and the influence of money in politics — all topics Clinton touched on this week.
Joe Trippi, a Democratic operative who ran Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004, said it is too early to tell whether a credible Clinton alternative will emerge. But he said that it was very rare for a front-runner “to make it all the way through without some sort of scare being thrown in” from another contender.
In the meantime, he said, the others should go to Iowa “and camp there and make their case.” Over time, both O’Malley, who has been playing guitar and singing at some events, and Webb, a former Marine who has been known to wear combat boots with a suit, have the potential to emerge. Despite Clinton’s commanding leads in early polling, many leading activists in Iowa say they are uncommitted.
“This process really highlights and defines candidates because they have to tell you where they stand, and they have to tell you face to face,” said Scott Ourth, a state representative in Iowa who remains uncommitted. “If you’re an Iowan who holds public office, like I do, you are well served to let the field evolve.”
O’Malley appeared last week at a fundraiser for Ourth in Indianola, at which more than 100 people showed up — more than Ourth said he was expecting.
“Just the attendance alone was evidence of a certain level of curiosity,” he said.
At the Polk County dinner, even some activists leaning in Clinton’s direction said they are keeping an open mind.
Those included Bahi Latif, a college student who said he came away impressed with both Webb and O’Malley. Webb was “someone you’d want to have a beer with,” Latif said. And he told O’Malley that he “should throw his hat in the ring, because a coronation is not what we want.”
Latif said he was given some pause by the controversy over Clinton’s use of a personal e-mail address while secretary of state and stories about foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation during her tenure.
“What might change my allegiance is if she stumbles again,” he said.