ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Hillary Rodham Clinton, edging closer to an expected presidential run, came to this down-at-the-heels gambling mecca Thursday to deliver a nostalgic and cheerful address on family, the outdoors and schoolyard fights.
The audience: thousands of professional camp counselors, whose trade group spent an estimated $200,000 to hear from the frontrunner for the 2016 Democratic nomination.
The speech to a regional gathering of the American Camp Association was the last paid appearance on Clinton’s public calendar, and probably the last she will give before her campaign begins.
Clinton wistfully recalled her late mother and raising her daughter, Chelsea, and cast herself as an approachable person who understood the lives of the counselors in the crowd. She also talked up her love of nature — “I love the outdoors” — and her own middle-class upbringing, where she said her mother, Dorothy Rodham, would encourage her to defend herself in schoolyard fights.
“No room for cowards in this house,” Clinton said of her mother’s message to her.
Clinton also playfully referred to the political storm that has engulfed her outside the cavernous ballroom at the Atlantic City Convention Center, as she responds to criticism of her use of a private e-mail server while secretary of state.
Referring to Chelsea’s time at camp decades ago as “the worst week,” Clinton paused and added, “Well, I have had a few bad weeks” to chuckles from the audience.
The appearance gave Clinton one last chance to revel in a nonpolitical, mostly adoring crowd. The many youthful attendees were dressed casually in the uniform of counselors: jeans, sneakers and hooded sweatshirts.
Still, with Clinton’s candidacy on the horizon, the price of Clinton’s speech caused chatter in the halls. Several counselors wondered if their group had paid Clinton’s usual fee of $200,000 or more, which would represent about 10 percent of the group’s annual budget.
Clinton, 67, has been giving regular paid speeches ever since she finished her tenure as secretary of state in 2013. In recent weeks, she has given speeches at the headquarters of eBay in San Jose, Calif., at an Emily’s List gala and at a conference for women working in Silicon Valley.
Nick Merrill, a Clinton adviser, declined to discuss compensation for Thursday’s speech. Jess Michaels, a spokesperson for the American Camp Association, referred questions to Clinton’s speaking agency, which did not respond to inquiries.
As he introduced Clinton, Jed Buck, a camp owner, said that selecting the keynote speaker — last year it was “Happy Days” star Henry Winkler — was not easy. “Like in camp, there is an internal and external component,” he said of the discussions. Ultimately, he said the group tapped Clinton because of her ability to draw notice to their efforts and her advocacy for children.
Paid speaking appearances have been a frequent occurrence since Clinton left the State Department in early 2013. Some of the fees have gone to her family foundation, others to Clinton. She raised eyebrows by taking fees from the likes of medical device manufacturers and scrap metal recyclers, along with university audiences. She has also given unpaid speeches, including to academic and nonprofit organizations.
The camp association speech was announced in December and caused a stir because the date in late March suggested a much later entry into the 2016 race than many outsiders had predicted.
Republicans piled on the criticism Thursday. “Nothing screams ‘I care’ quite like gouging an education non-profit,” Michael Short, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said in a statement.
But Burns Strider, a senior adviser to the pro-Clinton response group Correct the Record, dismissed the criticism.
“Republican politicians should be listening to Secretary Clinton’s talks about making our nation stronger, building up the middle class and focusing our collective energy on the future,” Strider said. “They could use the ideas.”
Clinton’s speech in this economically troubled beachside city — a favorite haunt for Frank Sinatra in its glitzier days — was her first public event here since 2007, when she was campaigning for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
Jay Jacobs — a camp owner, longtime Clinton ally and former New York state Democratic Party chairman — moderated an on-stage conversation with Clinton after her address. They sat together, campfire-style, in a pair of cozy, low-to-the-ground chairs.
Asked a series of questions about her lifestyle and career, Clinton said she watches Netflix’s “House of Cards” and Showtime’s “Homeland,” as well as Danish television drama “Borgen,” about a female prime minister. She also praised Nelson Mandela and Eleanor Roosevelt as two of her inspirations, along with her mother.
“We binge watch,” Clinton said of her viewing habits. Of “House of Cards,” she said, “Great acting; unrealistic stories.”
Reprising a common theme, Clinton also expressed dismay at the gridlock and rising partisanship in Washington.
“Right now, we’re at such a divisive period,” she said. “People fly in Monday night, Tuesday morning,” and then leave a couple days later, all with “insatiable pressure to raise money.” She said the situation was “crazy” and made worse by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision enabling super PACs to raise staggering sums.
The speech came hours after Mitt Romney, the GOP’s 2012 nominee, criticized Clinton for her handling of her e-mail, which was held on a private server in her New York home. She has said she turned over about half of the e-mails on the server to the State Department for archiving and deleted the rest as personal.
Romney, who briefly considered his own 2016 bid this year, called Clinton’s handling of her e-mail a “mess” in an interview with Yahoo News. He also criticized her policies as secretary of state and for foreign contributions to her family’s foundation.
“What you see here is Clintons behaving badly,” Romney said. “It’s always something with the Clintons.”
Clinton did not directly respond to GOP barbs during her appearance here but seemed to shrug off the attacks as the latest episode in a career marked by tensions with Republicans. “There has always been hardball,” Clinton told the crowd.
As she left the stage, Clinton broke into laughter when Jacobs handed her a gray sweatshirt reading “Camp David” — the name of the presidential retreat.
Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report.