Jerry Crawford, chairman of Hillary Rodham Clinton's 2008 Iowa campaign, poses for a portrait in his law office in Des Moines. (Philip Rucker/The Washington Post)

Jerry Crawford has played a leading role in Democratic presidential campaigns in Iowa for almost three decades. He served as state chairman for Michael Dukakis in 1988, Al Gore in 2000 and John F. Kerry in 2004. In 1992, he was Bill Clinton’s Iowa state director, and in 2008 he served as Midwest co-chairman for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign.

Crawford is now helping to lead the Iowa operation of Ready for Hillary, the political action committee that is organizing nationwide on her behalf.

Asked recently to describe the activity of Ready for Hillary in Iowa, he first pointed to the organization’s Jan. 25 meeting in Des Moines, which brought together key supporters of both Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s 2008 campaigns, along with Iowa Democratic activists who backed other candidates that year.

“That’s the first difference [between 2008 and today], and it’s a big one,” Crawford said. “Iowa, being Iowa, there will always be people who will rally to the call of an underdog candidacy. I fully expect we’ll have one or two more of those. But we’ve done a good job of showing Hillary that, should she run, she will have an infrastructure that is second to none and superior to what she had at the start last time.

Crawford spoke to The Washington Post at his Des Moines law office. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Q: Is Ready for Hillary a turnkey operation?

A: No, and I don’t think it’s trying to be. I think what we’re trying to do here in Iowa is create a grass-roots infrastructure that first and foremost can help people running for office in 2014 and then secondarily be ready to go with the national campaign, if and when Hillary decides to run. There’s no effort here at all to create a national campaign apparatus or even a state campaign apparatus. It’s just grass-roots organizing.

How does this compare with what was going on eight years ago on her behalf?

At this time eight years ago in Iowa, you had the specter of an Obama candidacy. You had people rallying around him. You had people rallying around her. And the groundwork was being laid for hand-to-hand combat, both at the activist level and at the grass-roots level. And this time that doesn’t exist. Yet. I should say yet.

What’s your level of doubt that she’ll run? Much?

No. It is — my core belief is that she doesn’t want to leave this life without a woman having been president. I think it goes without saying that she’s one of the most capable people on the planet to do the job, but I think that there’s a secondary imperative for her in terms of the glass ceiling.

More so today than when she first ran? Burn stronger today?

I think that for the last six years, women have streamed up to her unendingly — encouraging, begging, pleading her to do this.

How souring was the ’08 experience for her?

’08 was just incredibly difficult for everyone involved. So many — the level of passion generated by each of those candidates was unparalleled. And it was very difficult for both sides. And that’s why the event [in January], when we had the key people from the Obama ’08 effort there for Hillary — it wasn’t just symbolically important, it was emotionally important that there could be a kumbaya moment and people could work together in ’16 who had worked against each other in ’08. I’ve been involved in a lot of presidential campaigns but never one with that level of intensity.

You said you predicted there would be some sort of challenge if Clinton runs in ’16. What would that look like?

My party is just viscerally drawn to contests, to making sure that there’s an alternative to anyone, anytime, about anything. It’s just sort of the underdog mentality you find alive and well in the Democratic Party.

What’s the landscape she’s got to think about here as she comes to this decision?

There’s a lot of criticism among some that the Clinton campaign last time was too top-down. I’m not sure that’s a fair criticism, to be honest. But regardless of whether it is or isn’t, it’s certainly not the way we’re doing it right now. That’s why we [Ready for Hillary] were at 80-some county conventions. That’s why we were at all four district conventions. That’s why we’ve reached out on a regular basis to the neighborhood levels all over the state of Iowa. Those are our two focuses.

The question you asked really goes to if there was a campaign, and there isn’t a campaign apparatus, and none of us in this room knows who’s going to run one, if there is one someday. That’s not what we’re trying to do and that’s not what I’m involved in.

But you are in a sense attacking what was perceived to be a core problem. . . . So that whoever runs the campaign will not have to try to create or even understand what they have to create.

What you see . . . is a very focused effort by those people at the grass-roots level. That’s what we’re [doing] — and nationally that’s what Ready for Hillary [is doing].

Are you doing fundraising as well?

Yes. And we’re also going to do some fundraising here, and it’s our expectation that every dollar we raise for Ready for Hillary in Iowa will be used for Ready for Hillary in Iowa. We’ve had discussions to that effect, yeah. And it’s very much like what we’re trying to do to help people in ’14. There might be donors who might be ready to write checks to Ready for Hillary who wouldn’t be as ready to write checks to local candidates or to the coordinated campaign, or whatever, which is very important to how ’14 goes.

Are there people who should be a part of Ready for Hillary who are resisting, or are hoping for some challenger to emerge or who were important in the Obama coalition who aren’t there yet?

I certainly don’t know of any Obama people who aren’t there yet. Nobody has said that to me. You know, I think that for most Democrats in Iowa and elsewhere, there were strong cross currents in ’08, with many people wanting to be a part of electing the first African American and many people wanting to be a part of electing the first woman.

I’m not saying that was the lone motivation by any stretch of the two groups, but the party did elect the first African American and the party has yet to elect the first woman and for many Democrats, both of those are very important. And so I think that cuts across the party’s interest.

We were talking to some people about this question of how strong that motivation is, both for her and for other people. This notion of the first woman elected president. It was implicit last time, it wasn’t overly explicit. Do you think that will be different this time?

I watched her speak [April 26] to the international association of Methodist women . . . at the Louisville convention center. It was 9,000-plus Methodist women from everywhere imaginable and I thought I’d stumbled onto the crusades. . . . It was just like a wave of emotion in that hall when she talked.

By the way, she spoke freely and movingly about her faith, sort of as a frame for her public service. I wish she’d do that more often. I find that very compelling.

Joe Biden is completely left out of this moment. He’s well liked out here.

I don’t think people here expect him to run. . . . Rightly or wrongly, the consensus in Iowa is that the vice president, who people feel very warmly toward here, loves being part of the conversation but isn’t likely to mount any effort.

Have you heard anything coming from him or people close to him to people out here saying —?

Not one word. . . . There are a number of people he could call and say, “Please ask your friends to keep their power dry.”

Clinton’s book is coming out. . . . Should she come here?

I wish she’d move here. [Laughs.]

Realistically. She’s going to run around to bookstores around the country. Should she be in Des Moines and Iowa City?

We would certainly welcome her. She might not want to make what is already a book tour a bit of a circus even more of one by what you all would make of those stops here.

You were obviously joking about having her move here but the other criticism she got the last time was she didn’t spend as much time here as she needed. She may not have any real competition if she runs. How much time does she have to spend? What level of commitment will people accept?

You know, it’s not a fair fight for Hillary. . . . She has a national base, national constituency, national needs all over the country. . . . And that makes her being in any one place much of the time problematic. Whereas, and I love [former Montana governor] Brian Schweitzer, but he could come here for the next 18 months and I don’t think he’d be missed elsewhere to the same level.