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Clinton Campaign a Mix of Strengths, Challenges

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, center, speaks during a small business roundtable, April 15, 2015, in Norwalk, Iowa.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, center, speaks during a small business roundtable, April 15, 2015, in Norwalk, Iowa.

Back in 2008, Hillary Clinton’s presidential dreams came crashing to earth amid the bucolic rolling farmland of Iowa. Clinton finished a disappointing third in the Iowa Democratic Caucuses behind eventual President Barack Obama and John Edwards and never really recovered.

Clinton was back in Iowa this week determined to purge the memories of 2008.

But this time it was different.

Instead of huge stage-managed rallies befitting the strong frontrunner that she is, Clinton opted for a van ride from New York and meetings with small groups of voters in a coffee shop and at a community college.

It was the ultimate soft launch of a presidential bid based on the notion that Clinton realizes that no matter how much she is favored, she still has to re-earn voter trust and support well in advance of next year’s caucus and primary voting, which will begin in Iowa.

“Hillary Clinton has to do everything differently than the past,” said analyst Charlie Cook, editor and publisher of the Cook Political Report, a favorite of Washington insiders. “I mean she has got to go out of her way to be different.”

Republicans counter

Clinton’s second campaign was eagerly embraced by Republican contenders Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.

The 43-year old Rubio, a first term senator, announced his candidacy the day after Clinton launched her campaign and sought to draw a strong contrast with Clinton’s long experience on the U.S. political scene as first lady, senator and secretary of state.

“Too many of our leaders and their ideas are stuck in the 20th century,” he told an enthusiastic crowd of supporters in Miami. “The time has come for our generation to lead the way toward a new American century.” He added that Clinton was a candidate of “yesterday” and that “yesterday is over and we are never going back.”

The Republican National Committee produced an ominous-sounding ad recounting past Clinton controversies.​

And that is only the beginning, said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.

“She is going to be a very formidable opponent for whoever the Republicans pick,” he said. “But at the same time there are certain ways about making a narrative that you can drag her favorable (poll ratings) down.”

But there was also a warning for Republicans targeting Clinton from Karl Rove, former President George W. Bush’s political guru.

He wrote in his weekly column in the Wall Street Journal: “GOP candidates who excel at explaining their vision are more likely to gain voters’ support than candidates whose main purpose is attacking Mrs. Clinton, something Republicans should keep in mind as they select their nominee.”

The Obama factor

One of the central tensions in the Clinton campaign moving forward is how much distance should she put between herself and President Obama.

During some of her Iowa events Clinton already hinted she intends to run as her own person and someone well aware that many voters are looking for a change.

“I want to fix our political system,” she told small business owners during one of her roundtable discussions as reported by the Associated Press. “I want to get things done. We have to start breaking down the divisions that have paralyzed our politics. We’ve got to figure out in our country how to get back on the right track.”

A recent CNN poll found that 57 percent of those surveyed said “their perfect candidate” would be someone who wants to change most Obama administration policies.

“She is going to have to figure out which parts of the administration’s record and legacy that she is going to defend and go to the mat on,” said Matt Dallek, a political expert at George Washington University. “And then also which areas of in particular economic policy and the approach to getting things done in Washington she is going to want to do differently.”

Clinton’s approval ratings have suffered in the wake of the controversy about her use of a private email while secretary of state.

But she remains formidable, according to Dallek.

“She is extremely experienced,” he said. “She is very smart by all accounts. It seems early on, other than the email distraction, which has become huge, it seems like she and the people around her are ready to run a smarter campaign.”

Clinton’s Democratic challengers could include former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, former Virginia Senator Jim Webb and Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Sanders told Bloomberg this week that he will decide shortly on whether to mount a challenge to Clinton in the Democratic primaries.

“Is Hillary Clinton, are other candidates, prepared to take on the billionaire class?” he asked. “Based on her record, I don’t think so.”

Clinton has already tried to blunt that argument by telling voters that she would address income disparity as president.

“Unfortunately the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top,” she said. “We need to reshuffle the cards and begin to play a different hand.”

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.