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The New York Times
January 3, 2007
In Meetings With Allies, Clinton Hones ’08 Strategy
By PATRICK HEALY and ADAM NAGOURNEY
The topic was the Democratic sweep in New Hampshire in November, and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton couldn’t get enough of it.
Dining in Washington recently with three allies from New Hampshire, which has the first-in-the-nation primary, Mrs. Clinton was by turns probing and absorbing and, a participant said, clearly informed. How did the Democrats manage to unseat the state’s two Republican members of Congress? What were the key issues? And who were the new players to have emerged there in the 10 years since she last visited — and since her husband, Bill Clinton, used a strong second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary to vault his way to the Democratic nomination and the White House 15 years ago?
“She’s always been a student of government and of how you get there,” said Patricia McMahon, one of the dinner guests, a former Clinton White House aide who is now a state representative.
This meeting was one of a series of nearly nonstop political consultations that Mrs. Clinton has engaged in — over dinner and drinks, at private offices and at her home in Washington — since Election Day, in what her advisers say are preparations for a probable announcement that she is taking the first steps into the presidential campaign.
Mrs. Clinton, the New York Democrat, was described by participants as leaving little doubt that she plans to run, without saying so directly. Depending on her audience, she appears to be either seeking information to use in campaign strategy, pressing potential supporters to hold tight and wait for her to announce, or gauging how certain issues — in particular, her initial vote for the war in Iraq — might play.
The sessions are the subject of much discussion in Democratic circles, and they seem designed in part to counter any impression that Mrs. Clinton is surrounded by an insular circle of longtime advisers and friends who are detached from many of the grassroots Democrats who have grown in influence since the last time a Clinton ran for president.
According to participants, Mrs. Clinton has pressed to find out everything from whether former Vice President Al Gore will run again (he is inclined not to, people tell her) to how much support remains for Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the party’s 2004 candidate, among Democratic leaders (anemic, she has heard).
Mrs. Clinton told Democrats that she viewed her two strongest potential Democratic opponents as Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and John Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina. They said that she viewed Mr. Obama as her biggest obstacle to the nomination, but that she believed the threat of his candidacy will diminish as voters learn how inexperienced he is in government and foreign affairs.
Without mentioning Mr. Obama by name, Mrs. Clinton and her camp are already asserting that experience will be a key attribute for any successful candidate during difficult times — an argument that her team will no doubt make in a more aggressive way against Mr. Obama if they both jump into the race.
Mrs. Clinton is holding her discussions at a time of tremendous fluidity in presidential politics. The emergence of Mr. Obama, the Democratic takeover of Congress, the continued deterioration in Iraq, and the decisions by Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana and former Governor Mark Warner of Virginia not to run all have made her consultations more important and the situation she faces more complex.
According to participants, it is clear that Mrs. Clinton is far along in plotting a campaign, and she is honing strategy at the same time that she is making overtures to people in states that heavily influence the presidential nominating process. New Hampshire is expected to hold the first primary in January 2008, after caucuses in Iowa and Nevada.
Mrs. Clinton has gone to great lengths to try to keep these meetings private. She and her aides have strongly asked Democrats not to report what has taken place there, from what she says to what she eats and where (she had the lamb at Ruth’s Chris, the Dover sole at the Four Seasons). Many people who discussed the meetings did so on the condition of anonymity, and some of her advisers pointedly refused to talk, including Paul Begala, the Democratic consultant who worked as a senior adviser to Mr. Clinton in the 1992 race and is close to Mrs. Clinton.
“As I tell the boys: N.H.D.: Not. Happening. Dude,” Mr. Begala wrote in an e-mail, the boys a reference to his sons.
Still, several Democrats were willing to share what they described as long discussions about politics and policy with a former first lady who wants to be president.
Senator Clinton told one New Hampshire Democrat that if all things were equal, she would prefer to delay the formal start of her campaign until later this year and focus instead on notching accomplishments as a prominent member of the new Democratic majority in the Senate. At several meetings, Mrs. Clinton has wondered, with obvious exasperation, why her husband was able to delay making his presidential announcement in 1991 until October, while she is under increasing pressure to make hers earlier in the year, participants said.
“I recommended that she didn’t need to jump in early, that I would like to see some progress in the Senate, and she said she felt the same way,” said the Democrat, William Shaheen, who was a senior New Hampshire aide to Mr. Gore in 2000 and Mr. Kerry in 2004.
Some of her aides said that while she is likely to announce within the next few weeks that she is creating a presidential exploratory committee, a step that would allow her to start raising money, a formal announcement might take longer. And some of the advice she has heard has been to wait.
“Senator Clinton was clear that she’d like to focus on the Senate, but sometimes events come into it, other people start beating the drum quicker, and you can lose key people if you wait,” Mr. Shaheen said.
Jeanne Shaheen, a former New Hampshire governor and Mr. Shaheen’s wife, said that Mrs. Clinton had consulted her as well, and that she had asked “all the right kinds of questions.”
“She clearly is thinking about what to do and not taking anything for granted,” said Mrs. Shaheen, who is now the director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard. “She has a special relationship with the people in New Hampshire, from her years in the White House, and I think she was trying to get a sense of what a campaign would be like if she decides to run.”
Mrs. Clinton has talked, both in person or by telephone, to influential Democrats in New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada, the states that will begin the nomination process with caucuses and primaries a year from now. She has pressed Democrats to find out what campaign staff her prospective opponents like Mr. Edwards have assembled in states like Iowa. And she asked precisely where she should go in places like Iowa and New Hampshire if she, as expected, does a round of trips there after forming a presidential exploratory committee.
No detail has been too minor for Mrs. Clinton. She has asked Democrats from New Hampshire and Iowa about the concerns in certain regions and counties of their states, dwelling on energy issues, health care, education and the war in Iraq. She has asked about the influence of independent voters (they make up the biggest voting bloc in New Hampshire and can vote in the Democratic primary there). Mrs. Clinton has less experience with presidential politics in Iowa than in New Hampshire because in 1992, when her husband ran, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa was also seeking the presidential nomination, so the rest of the candidates steered clear of that state’s race.
Mrs. Clinton has not been to Iowa since the 2004 election.
The senator spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day on vacation with her husband in the Caribbean, but her associates said Tuesday that she would return this week to working through her long call list with Democrats around the country and holding private lunches and dinners in Washington and New York.
The New Hampshire Democratic Party has invited Senator Clinton to be a keynote speaker at a major fund-raiser this winter, and officials there say they expect her to attend and are waiting to hear about a date. They say it could be anytime from late January through March.
Some New Hampshire Democrats expressed concern that Mrs. Clinton’s first dinner with political players from their state, on Dec. 9, was limited to three Democrats who were active in her husband’s campaigns in the 1990s and not a broader group that reflected the vanguard of state party politics today.
Terie Norelli, who became speaker of the New Hampshire House in December and the first Democratic speaker in 70 years, said she had not heard from Mrs. Clinton. “It’ll only be tricky for her if she stops with those people,” Ms. Norelli said. “Democratic politics has certainly changed since the 1990s, if you look at how many Democrats have been elected to the House, and the two new Democrats going to Congress. It would be wise for any candidate to move on and reach out to many of the new activists that we have.”
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company