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Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign quietly begins to take shape

By Brianna Keilar, CNN Senior Political Correspondent
updated 9:53 AM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
Hillary Clinton's campaign is quietly beginning to take shape.
Hillary Clinton's campaign is quietly beginning to take shape.
  • Hillary Clinton isn't saying whether she'll run for president
  • But behind the scenes, Clinton associates are beginning to put together a campaign

Washington (CNN) -- Hillary Clinton has spent the final moments of the midterm campaign season publicly deflecting the flurry of questions about her likely run for president.

But behind the scenes, her campaign machine is quietly whirring to life.

Clinton insiders have begun to approach Washington-based Democratic operatives who may play a role in a potential campaign and are soliciting their recommendations on other possible staffers, according to Democrats familiar with the conversations.

A number Clinton associates are compiling staffing lists, according to multiple Democratic sources. Michael Whouley and Minyon Moore of the Democratic communications and consulting firm Dewey Square Group are one conduit to Clinton's inner circle and among the primary compilers of the campaign universe that will surround Clinton, should she run.

The firm is led by veteran players in Clinton world. Whouley was an adviser to Vice President Al Gore and a Clinton campaign aide while Moore is a longtime Clinton confidante.

Ginny Terzano, head of communications for Dewey Square, said the characterization is "incorrect."

"DSG officials have no role" in a potential Clinton campaign, she said.

Operatives at the firm are reviewing possible Clinton staffers "under the guise of spitballing ideas," as one Democratic source put it.

With a trio of pro-Hillary superPACs -- Ready for Hillary, Priorities USA Action and Correct the Record -- months into shoring up support, a Clinton campaign is already well underway outside of her inner circle.

Clinton's midterm campaign schedule

"The reality is that if you have a message and you're larger than life, the organization can come together pretty quickly," said Tom McMahon, who served as deputy campaign director for Howard Dean's 2004 campaign. "It can be a turnkey operation."

As the Clinton campaign apparatus is constructed, those close to her are trying to shroud it from view, wary of the glaring political spotlight that amplifies every move the former secretary of state makes.

"There are no formal talks, no one is being offered jobs," one source told CNN, dismissing the signs of campaign life as "a lot of jockeying" from Democrats who want to work on a Clinton campaign.

In September, Clinton and her inner circle were dismayed by a leak to Politico that revealed the presence of John Podesta -- former Chief of Staff to President Bill Clinton, current top aide to President Barack Obama and the person favored to serve as chairman of a Hillary Clinton campaign -- at meetings with pro-Clinton super PACs this summer.

Huma Abedin, one of Clinton's closest aides, has told multiple Democrats to rein in chatter about 2016, saying Clinton wants to keep attention on the midterm elections and minimize attention on a presidential run, according to a Democratic source who spoke to Abedin.

Clinton and the small team she employs are trying to keep her out of the tarnishing political spotlight until she is ready to make a run official, something Clinton will likely do by the end of winter, though she would like to put it off as late as possible.

"If there's not a competitive primary, the general election starts as soon as she declares," said Katie Packer Gage, former deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential run, who says the challenge of a Clinton campaign will be more of what her current team is already struggling with -- ''how do they keep her fresh for the American people?"

Recent campaigns for viable Democratic or Republican presidential candidates were well into the preliminary phase of staffing up at this point in time, with top aides already getting in line ahead of an official announcement.

In 2012, Matt Rhoades, at the time the executive director of Mitt Romney's Political Action Committee and later Romney's campaign manager, was already in early discussions with all of those who would become senior staff.

Well before the 2006 midterms, then-Sen. Barack Obama had conducted preliminary discussions with and identified a number of top aides. His campaign effectively went into high gear after the elections, though he launched his exploratory committee in January 2007 and declared his candidacy in February.

But some political operatives warn not to read too much into the beginning phase of a Clinton campaign currently underway.

"Of course the preliminary conversations should be going on," said Steve Elmendorf, Deputy Campaign Manager for John Kerry's 2004 campaign. "But there are a lot of people who have had those conversations - who thought about running for office, made plans to run for office, and didn't."

Among those believed to be part of a potential Clinton campaign, Guy Cecil, the current executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, appears to be one of Clinton's most likely choices for campaign manager, according to interviews with more than two dozen Democrats.

"Even if Democrats don't hang onto the Senate, people respect the job that he's done," said one.

Cecil's role is expected to fall under the oversight of Podesta, seen as a calming force who could squash much of the internal drama that plagued Clinton's 2008 campaign. Podesta is expected to stay at the White House through the State of the Union, according to two sources familiar with his current plans, despite his initial commitment of one year service when Obama named him to his post in the West Wing last December.

By last Spring, Robby Mook, who managed the campaign that propelled Clinton fundraising guru, Terry McAuliffe, into the Virginia governor's mansion, has "been on ice" - as one Democrat put it - since as early as the spring, according to two Democrats familiar with the discussion. He was told not to make long term plans by those close to Clinton, the sources say, and is widely expected to play a major role in running the campaign.

Dennis Cheng, who manages fundraising for the Clinton Foundation and served as Hillary Clinton's deputy chief of protocol at the State Department, is the frontrunner for finance director, according to multiple Democrats. Huma Abedin, as well as longtime Clinton aide Philippe Reines and Nick Merrill, Clinton's current spokesperson, are expected to serve in influential roles in and around the campaign.

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