Hillary Rodham Clinton, who won’t yet say whether she is running for president, is assembling a massive campaign team-in-waiting that outstrips anything on a Republican side that remains factionalized and focused on knocking off one another.
At this point, without so much as an announcement, she has settled on — at the least — a campaign chairman, a campaign manager, a chief strategist and lead pollster, another pollster, a lead media adviser, a communication director, a deputy communications director, a focus group director and a communications strategist.
She is also closing in on a New York City campaign headquarters and a date to make all of this official.
Some senior staff are signing on without nailing down the usual conditions of a new job, such as a salary or starting date. Recruitment is being led by White House senior adviser John Podesta and manager-designate Robby Mook, with Clinton making many of the final decisions herself.
Clinton faces no competition for Democratic campaign talent and is said to prefer to wait as long as possible to begin campaigning, but she has assured senior advisers that she would put the legal framework of a campaign in place this spring.
The advanced stage of her organization is one of many signs that Clinton is the heir apparent for the Democratic nomination, a status that has scared off serious rivals and allowed her to postpone — perhaps until summer — the day she has to begin rigorous campaigning.
Her effort at this stage looks a lot like an incumbent’s reelection campaign: She will be running largely in support of a sitting president and his agenda, and is busy hiring many of President Obama’s former aides.
Jim Messina, who helped engineer Clinton’s downfall in 2008 as a senior aide to Obama’s campaign, now runs a super PAC devoted to supporting her in 2016. “It’s her turn and her time,” he said on MSNBC this week. “We’re going to do whatever it takes to make sure she’s the president of the United States.”
No Republicans now moving toward active candidacies can say that they are as far along in staffing their upper ranks with the kind of experienced people whom Clinton is bringing aboard. She’s also locking in wealthy donors and has a head start on other ground organizing and fundraising because of the efforts of outside groups supporting her.
But the luxury of front-runner status could easily become a liability as Clinton attempts the historically difficult feat of leading her party to a third consecutive term in the White House.
So her advisers are working hard to fashion ways to make her seem hungrier, scrappier and less like the inheritor of Obama’s mantle. A small but expanding cadre of close advisers is looking at ways to keep her in fighting form through a slow and uneventful early campaign season.
Strategies to distance herself from Obama include a focus on more populist and base-friendly economic issues, as well as suggestions that — despite her tenure as his secretary of state — her foreign policy would be more self-assured than his.
No one knows better than Clinton that the landscape roughly a year before the first presidential primary contests can be deceiving. She thought she had a lock on the 2008 nomination — only to lose to Obama.
But Democrats supporting Clinton see no one on the horizon this time who could become an Obama, especially now that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) has said she is not running.
That leaves Clinton considering what advisers describe as a “soft” or small-scale launch in April that would allow her to raise money and hire staff but delay traditional daily campaigning until the summer. By comparison, Clinton began campaigning for the 2008 election in January 2007.
Although some supporters worry that Clinton risks losing her edge, others said there is little or no downside to postponing the kind of daily handshaking and speechifying that Clinton often appeared to dislike last time.
Des Moines lawyer and Clinton supporter Jerry Crawford knows there is some hand-wringing among Iowa campaign regulars. At this point in 2007, candidates had established Iowa offices, hired staff and were making regular stops there.
Crawford is unconcerned.
No voters are telling him, “she’s got to get out here, because campaigns aren’t long enough in this state,” Crawford said. “July is as good as March or April.”
Advisers fret that GOP front-runner Jeb Bush, already known as a smooth speaker, will have lots of debate chops if he emerges from the crowded GOP field to oppose her.
Clinton advisers are looking for ways she can get in a few zingers now. A Twitter message Clinton posted Monday may give a clue to her campaign approach. She weighed in after a controversy erupted over comments from potential GOP opponents New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky that appeared to question universal childhood vaccination.
“The science is clear: The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork. Let’s protect all our kids. #GrandmothersKnowBest,” she wrote.
Clinton is likely to launch an exploratory committee or other placeholder entity in early April, to take advantage of most or all of the federal campaign fundraising period that begins April 1, four strategists and supporters said.
The details of what kind of entity she should launch are still under debate among close advisers, strategists said. They requested anonymity because Clinton is still considering her choices and has made it clear that she wants to keep most of the deliberations private.
An exploratory committee would function as a de-facto announcement, but Clinton could then take her time establishing muscular organizations in Iowa, New Hampshire and other key states, one Democratic strategist supporting her said.
“She wouldn’t really be exploring anything,” the strategist said.
A “leadership” PAC would be another way of planting her campaign flag without announcing a formal Clinton for President organization, and money that a PAC took in would not count against the federal totals for what individuals may give directly to campaigns.
But it now appears less likely that Clinton would form her own political action committee, strategists said. That is mostly because, like an incumbent, Clinton already has a ready political network and no fear of running out of money.
It is still quite possible that Clinton would skip the stutter-step approach and simply announce her full-fledged presidential campaign this spring.
Much of the political machinery that helped get Obama elected twice has already swung behind a Clinton candidacy — adding to the feel of quasi-incumbency.
Podesta is advising her unofficially and is expected to become the campaign chairman. He has already announced that he will leave the White House within weeks. White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri is expected to assume the same title for the Clinton campaign in March or April.
Collectively, Clinton’s team represents a break from the past. With few exceptions, none of the new team played the most senior roles in her 2008 campaign, and many worked actively against her as part of the Obama operation. More hiring is underway, filling out press, research, digital, political, field and other departments.
Clinton is revamping her communications and press strategy after a 2008 campaign marked by toxic relations between the campaign and the press. Joel Benenson, an Obama pollster now serving as a chief Clinton adviser, Palmieri and Podesta all have good relationships with reporters.
Recent discussions among the Clinton cadre have centered on ways she can communicate through the political press and in spite of it, strategists said, including ways she can exploit social-media outlets that did not exist when she ran in 2008.
Benenson is leading some of the discussions about communications strategy and other topics, two people familiar with recent meetings said. Clinton has ruled out the idea of locating her campaign headquarters in White Plains, N.Y., near her suburban home in Chappaqua; the office will be in Manhattan or Brooklyn, strategists said.
Ahead of an announcement, Clinton aides and advisers are charting the issues and policies where Clinton might break with Obama. One strategist advising Clinton said the differences will showcase some of Clinton’s more populist and “base-friendly” domestic-policy ideas in the absence of strong primary opposition.
Speaking in Canada last month, Clinton said that although she credits Obama with leading the country out of a deep recession, “I would have differences, everybody would have differences, about what else could have been done.”
She has also hinted that she will cast her national-security leadership as more sure-footed than Obama’s. A telling remark to the Atlantic magazine last summer about Obama’s trademark caution on foreign affairs later brought an apology.
“Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” she had said.
At the same time, Democratic strategists said, no one wants a repeat of the awkward 2000 campaign, when Al Gore, the sitting vice president, appeared to stiff-arm President Bill Clinton. Obama is said to be prepared to do whatever he can do to help her.
Republicans are ready to pounce on any attempt to portray her as an outsider after more than two decades in official Washington. Her advisers assume that Republican criticism will only intensify and serve a purpose similar to the primary season as a proving ground.
Clinton’s circle also dislikes comparisons to incumbency, insisting that she will campaign hard and on her own terms.
“You can’t be something you aren’t,” Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill said. “She’s not an incumbent and wouldn’t run as one. Make no mistake, if she runs, she will present solutions to our toughest challenges, she will take nothing for granted, and she will fight for every vote.”