MASON CITY, Iowa — Hillary Rodham Clinton’s appearance here Monday at the home of Dean Genth and Gary Swenson — one of the first gay couples to marry in Iowa — spoke volumes about the political pitch and style of her nascent presidential campaign.
Even as a global celebrity and the overwhelming Democratic front-runner, Clinton is doggedly focused at this early stage on highlighting her progressive values and on what she called “people-to-people connections” — aggressive organizing in the state where she placed a disappointing third in the 2008 caucuses.
The event — the first of Clinton’s two-day visit — was tailored to fit that low-key, tilt-left strategy, which her campaign hopes will signal that she is taking little for granted in the primary race. She arrived quietly in a minivan trailed by Secret Service agents and ducked inside to greet a crowd of volunteers, who were given “commit to caucus” cards to share with friends. The tightly controlled setting also allowed her to continue to steer clear of the press pack following her.
Holding court in the living room, Clinton embraced her ties to President Obama and cast herself as his tested and natural heir. It was an acknowledgment that Obama’s leftover network remains a coveted coalition in Iowa and an assertion that her time on the world stage is an asset, rather than a liability, as Republicans have challenged.
“I’m going into this race with my eyes wide open about how hard it is to be president of the United States,” Clinton told approximately 50 Democrats gathered. “I do have that experience to know what is possible and how best to proceed.”
On economics, her message was populist. Facing vocal competition from bank-bashing Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and other likely rivals for the Democratic nomination, Clinton said she is as frustrated as anyone with the gap between the rich and the poor.
“The deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top,” Clinton said. She attacked “hedge-fund managers” and other financiers for exploiting loopholes in the U.S. tax code.
“Warren Buffett has said it, but so have a lot of other people. There’s something wrong when the average American CEO makes 300 times more than the typical American worker,” she said.
But Clinton continued her stretch of declining to take questions from reporters — ignoring the media contingent outside the house and bypassing controversial topics, such as the debate over U.S. trade policy that has roiled Congress for weeks. Reporters were ushered out of the home after she delivered her remarks, unable to record her exchanges with attendees.
Clinton’s talk also came days after reports that she and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, have earned more than $25 million since early last year in speaking fees — a development she did not mention during her comments about the unsettling power of wealthy Americans.
Republicans seized on her event’s closed nature and her refusal to take questions from reporters. On Twitter, the Republican National Committee promoted its “#AskHillary” hashtag campaign in an attempt to pressure Clinton to engage with the media.
As Clinton left the house Monday, reporters shouted questions that went unanswered, including this from Fox News’s Ed Henry: “Why won’t you answer any questions?”
Clinton is scheduled to appear Tuesday in nearby Cedar Falls for a roundtable with small-business leaders. The stop, like Monday’s, will be open only to invited guests.
Many people in the house were excited about getting a chance to hear her up close, but some onlookers were less than enthused.
Doug Bell, 59, a farmer from Thornton, Iowa, waited outside for an hour to catch a glimpse of Clinton but left without getting a chance to speak with her.
“I caucused for her in 2008, but the world has changed, and I’d like to get her update about what’s been happening with us, the backbone of America,” he said.
Clinton said she understood the concerns of everyday Iowans and would guard the landmark policies of the Obama years, particularly the president’s health-care law, to “reignite” the national economy and give a lift to those struggling.
“We aren’t running yet, but we are on our feet,” Clinton said.
Turning to the issue of drug abuse and mental health, Clinton sounded compassionate and solemn. “It is below the surface people are talking about it,” she said. “It is something hard to deal with.”
“I did not believe I would be standing in your living room talking about the drug abuse problem, the suicide problem and the mental health problem,” she said. “Now I am convinced I have to talk about it.”
The visit was also a nod to solidarity with the gay rights movement, including her own shift toward supporting same-sex marriage as a constitutional right. Genth, one of her hosts, is a board member of One Iowa, the largest gay rights organization in the state, and was a prominent backer of Obama in 2008. He and Swenson were married in 2009, soon after the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex unions.
Across Iowa, Clinton’s campaign already has 21 organizers and six regional directors building her ground game — far more than other Democratic contenders and part of her plan to cultivate skeptical liberals who may be tempted to back a lesser-known candidate.
For Clinton, that means going small, rather than big. Cookies, grapes and bottles of water were offered at the home, and no signs were displayed on the lawn. If it wasn’t for the row of satellite trucks outside, there would have been little evidence in the neighborhood that a presidential candidate was mixing and mingling just up the block.
“It is the best way to make those connections,” Clinton said of her approach.