DES MOINES — She’s an icon known across the world by just her first name, but when Hillary Rodham Clinton touches down here in Iowa this week to kick off her second presidential campaign, she will be greeted by enormous expectations of intimacy.
Jan Bauer, chairwoman of the Story County Democrats, expects to be courted persistently by Clinton and her aides before deciding whom to support. “I’ll be waiting to see how aggressively pursued I am,” she said.
Down the interstate in Urbandale, party organizer Jerry Tormey wants the former secretary of state to show up at his annual Flag Day event on June 14, which in the past has drawn all of 75 people for free hot dogs and a raffle. After all, he warned, “Dark horses have won Iowa before.”
Across the state in Cedar Rapids, Linda Langston recently told Clinton’s national campaign manager-in-waiting, Robby Mook, that Clinton ought to surprise folks here.
“We know everything about her — maybe not the color of her underwear, but we know just about everything else about this woman,” said Langston, a Linn County supervisor. “But there still is an element of surprise that could be there if she could get past her concern of how she’s portrayed and just be her genuine self.”
On Election Day in 2016, the next president will be chosen by well over 100 million people. But for Clinton, the journey to the White House starts this week before the proud Democratic activists in this small Midwestern state — entitled, yes, and perhaps a bit petulant, but each nevertheless wanting to be listened to, touched and wooed.
They expect to see Clinton in their living rooms and neighborhood coffee shops and bars, fleshing out a robust and progressive agenda on issues ranging from Wall Street reform to Islamist terrorists to climate change but also hanging out to answer questions, take some selfies or simply chitchat.
“We really are that spoiled,” said Bret Nilles, chairman of the Linn County Democrats.
Iowa Democrats have been waiting eight years for a competitive caucus campaign, and they demand that Clinton wage one — even if there’s no Barack Obama or John Edwards looming as formidable opponents.
So far, Clinton and her allies have signaled she will.
“She’s going to come to Iowa and campaign as if she were 20 points behind,” said Jerry Crawford, a prominent Iowa Democrat and longtime Clinton friend who helped oversee her 2008 campaign here. “You’re going to see the effort on Hillary’s behalf go from zero to 60 in about four seconds, including her own approach. I have absolute confidence that she will be very aggressive in fighting for every vote.”
Mook underscored this ethos on Saturday in a staff memo detailing what will be the Clinton campaign’s mission and core values. He writes, “We are humble: we take nothing for granted, we are never afraid to lose, we always out-compete and fight for every vote we can win. We know this campaign will be won on the ground, in states.”
In 2008, no state scorned Clinton quite like Iowa. Her third-place finish, behind Obama and Edwards, was demoralizing and fueled Obama’s rise. Many Iowans thought Clinton came across as aloof and her campaign as dysfunctional — especially in contrast to the personal touch and grass-roots savvy of Obama, who represented neighboring Illinois in the Senate and spent a total of 89 days campaigning in Iowa. For example, Nilles said he talked personally with Obama five times in 2007 and collected voice-mail messages from the candidate.
This time around, Clinton already has a sizable Iowa staff, working as volunteers until the official campaign launch, and will soon open a state headquarters in Des Moines and field offices in every corner of the state. The staff is expected to total about 40 in the near term and grow bigger in the summer and fall ahead of next year’s caucuses.
The Clinton team, led by Matt Paul, a longtime adviser to Agriculture Secretary and former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, held training seminars last week for new field staffers to prepare for Clinton’s visit. A priority is collecting names and contact information of people who show up to see Clinton on the campaign trail so they can be recruited as precinct captains.
Rather than a splashy launch event, Clinton is expected to make multiple small-scale stops over several days this week, allowing for up-close discussions with voters.
“It’s an opportunity for Hillary to listen as well as to speak,” Crawford said. “There will be plenty of time for rallies and big events later, but at the front end it needs to be much more conversational.”
Libby Slappey, a Democratic activist here who caucused for Obama in 2008 but is inclined to support Clinton, said Clinton’s slow-go rollout shows she has learned from her previous mistakes.
“She’s got everything that it takes to win,” Slappey said. “But she cannot assume anything. She cannot walk onto the stage as a self-anointed heir apparent — no way.”
When Mook and a top lieutenant, Marlon Marshall, visited Iowa in late March for meetings with party leaders, labor organizers and other activists, their message was clear: Clinton would be here soon and come back often.
Langston, who attended one of the meetings, recalled, “They said, ‘We are not even remotely presumptive.”
One talking point the Clinton team has repeated: no Democratic candidate for president has gotten more than 50 percent of the caucus vote unless he or she was a sitting president, vice president or, as for Sen. Tom Harkin in 1992, a favorite son.
Mook and Marshall also told party leaders that the Clinton campaign would focus not only on electing her president, but also on building up the Democratic Party. They said it would help recruit new candidates to run for local offices, engage new volunteers and sign up new voters — hallmarks of Obama’s winning Iowa effort in 2008. And they said they were committed to Iowa for the long haul and would not pack up shop the morning after the caucuses, according to people with knowledge of the private meetings.
A stronger Democratic Party benefits Clinton, of course. Iowa is a general election swing state, so the work her team does ahead of the caucuses can pay off later should she become the party’s nominee.
Jeff Link, an Iowa strategist who advised Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, said Clinton is wise to “utilize this time to help build a foundation for the entire cycle, not just for the period in the run-up to the caucuses.” He suggested that one priority be convincing former Democratic voters who were registered as independents in the 2014 midterms, when Republicans swept the state’s major races, to become Democrats again.
Democrats here have been buffeted since the heady days of 2008. Last fall, they handily lost the Senate seat long held by Harkin, a progressive firebrand, to Joni Ernst, a conservative Republican. And for months now, a dozen Republican presidential hopefuls have been parading through Iowa with hot rhetoric and new policy prescriptions.
“The Republican field is vast and deep and interesting and quirky,” Slappey said. “Hillary’s challenge is that the world knows too much about her, so how does she present herself as new and bring forth fresh ideas?”
Democrats here are hungry to see Clinton — or someone else — throw a few punches, but also to show them a path forward in uncertain times. On Friday night, more than 250 activists filed into a union hall on the outskirts of Des Moines, wearing business suits and cocktail dresses, T-shirts and jeans. They sat down on folding metal chairs, cut into pork chops and spoonfuls of mashed potatoes and imagined America’s future.
The dinner attendees listened through nearly three hours of rambling tributes and fiery speeches, including from two potential candidates, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley and former senator James Webb of Virginia, who have yet to get traction in early polls.
O’Malley — who’s made Iowa a second home of late, trying to meet every Democrat he can find and visiting taverns where he’s strummed folk tunes on borrowed guitars following his stump speeches — drew repeated bursts of applause as he called for tougher policing of Wall Street, increasing the minimum wage and making it easier for unions to organize.
Although Clinton was not present that night, she was on everyone’s mind. Her first visit was imminent, and her campaign promises to dwarf the others. Paul and another newly hired staffer, Troy Price, worked the room talking to the activists.
“I think people have a good feeling about Hillary,” Larry Hodgden, chairman of the Cedar County Democrats, said in a separate interview. “They respect her and what she’s done, but there are missing pieces.”
Hodgden, who caucused for Clinton in 2008, added: “She’s got a lot of work to do to convince Iowa Democrats that she’s going to stand up and fight for us. She’s got to get busy.”
Rucker reported from Washington.