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Sneak peek inside Hillary Clinton 2016: Campaign will avoid first person

Story highlights

  • Hillary Clinton and her aides plan a very different campaign in 2016
  • Clinton will avoid using the first person whenever possible and Bill Clinton will play a smaller role
  • Staffers waiting for the official announcement are currently unpaid and working out of a kitchen
  • The person in charge of reintroducing Hillary Clinton also helped shape Michelle Obama's public persona

New York (CNN)The second time around, Hillary Clinton is downsizing.

As she and a coterie of advisers prepare to launch her presidential campaign, their work is guided by a new set of humble principles: No big crowds. Few soaring rallies. Less mention of her own ambitions. And extinguish the air of inevitability propelling her candidacy.
    The long and winding prelude to her announcement is nearly over, according to aides, and the start of her second bid for the White House is likely only days away. Top Democratic activists in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire privately say they have been placed on alert that Clinton will soon be on her way.
    The specific moment she jumps into the race remains a closely guarded secret, even inside the crowded corridors of her small office suite in Manhattan, which new aides have descended upon to build the operation. Only a handful of confidantes actually know the precise time Clinton will pull the trigger — first on social media — yet aides have been instructed to be ready from Monday forward.
    But her campaign strategy has crystallized: She will devote considerable time and attention to on-the-ground footwork in Iowa and New Hampshire. She intends to make less frequent stops in Nevada and South Carolina. Together, those four states kick off the nominating contest early next year and will help determine how warmly Democrats embrace her candidacy.
    The early pieces of her strategy are starting to come into sharper view as the announcement nears. One of the most noticeable differences from her first campaign, according to more than a dozen people close to the Clintons, is a concerted effort to try and make her candidacy seem far less focused on her winning than on listening to the concerns of voters.
    "The early caucus and primary states give her an opportunity to visit with folks in small, more intimate settings, where they will learn a lot about her and she will learn a lot from them," Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary and former Iowa governor, who served as a national chairman of her 2008 campaign, told CNN.

    Putting in time in Iowa

    Over dinner and drinks one night last week at Baratta's, a cozy Italian restaurant in Des Moines, two top visiting Clinton strategists listened as supportive Iowa activists issued a stark warning: Some Democrats are far less enthused about her candidacy than others. After placing third in the Iowa caucuses in 2008, they said she must ask for every vote as well as being willing to run a gauntlet of small events and take part in grueling campaign sessions across the state.
    Robby Mook, the campaign manager, and Marlon Marshall, a top deputy, traveled from New York to Iowa and New Hampshire last week as Clinton's envoys. They hosted the dinner and other intimate events, hoping to show that a former First Lady, senator and Secretary of State was open to concern, constructive criticism and even complaints.
    Tom Henderson, chairman of the Polk County Democratic Party in Iowa, said activists were hungry for a primary campaign or at least a serious conversation about issues facing the country and who would become President Obama's successor. He was not invited to the dinner last week because he intends to remain neutral in the race, but he said he has shared his views with Clinton confidantes.
    "The Democratic voters in Iowa are eager for this to get started," Henderson told CNN. "Many Democrats believe that a spirited caucus and primary season is essential to a successful Democratic presidential campaign in the fall of 2016."
    Several Democrats close to Clinton say she would actually rather face a credible primary challenger — and she still might — rather than be forced to compete with unrealistic expectations of a phantom candidate being promoted by the party's more liberal left wing.

    No 'I' in Clinton 2016

    But Clinton has told her advisers that she intends to aggressively campaign as though she has a primary opponent, aides say, by listening to concerns of voters and taking great pains to avoid the appearance of a coronation.
    One approach is to avoid blatant suggestions of the historic nature of her candidacy, hoping to fight impressions that Clinton's presidential aspirations are all about her.
    That was one of the key findings of research already conducted through focus groups in Iowa and New Hampshire. Those conversations, coupled with the searing lessons from 2008, have led aides to impress upon Clinton and her loyal circle of admirers that, far more than her own political ambitions, this race must be about what voters want.
    While it seems basic, the fresh crop of advisers cringe at how she announced her last presidential campaign, with a video message and a statement on her website that declared: "I'm in. And I'm in to win."
    This first-person mantra, which flourished repeatedly throughout her statement back on Jan. 20, 2007, will be all but stripped from her vocabulary, aides say. In its place will be a pledge to carry the causes of Americans who feel left behind in the economic recovery and the growing divide among classes.

    Reintroducing Hillary Clinton

    Democrats close to her campaign-in-waiting have fought the urge to solely dwell on mistakes made during her 2008 candidacy. Their view is that she can't win the next two years by only trying to fix what happened the first time around, even though avoiding similar missteps is a key goal.
    The cadre of operatives charting a course for her second presidential campaign are seeking to try and reintroduce Clinton - this time on her own terms - to American voters. These Democratic strategists say people know of Clinton, considering she has near 100 percent name recognition in most polls, but they don't know personal aspects of her story.
    The goal in the next few months, aides say, will be to reintroduce Clinton through small, controlled and more personal events in hopes of casting her in a softer light than she was portrayed during her failed 2008 presidential run.
    "The views about women candidates and how they should conduct themselves has really changed since 2008," said Bonnie Campbell, the co-chair of Clinton's 2008 campaign in Iowa. "First and foremost people vote for candidates that they like, people who connect with them emotionally. I think that helps with everybody but certainly it helps with women and the men who love them. It just makes her a more complete person."
    Campbell said that in 2008 she saw voters in Iowa light up when they connected with Clinton in coffee shops and in their homes, but those events were few and far between compared to large rallies and speeches.
    But it's an open question how successful the effort to reintroduce Clinton will be, with nearly a dozen Republican rivals and the full weight of the party eager to seize on more polarizing aspects in hopes of defining her in an unflattering light.
    During her time on the paid speaking circuit and at philanthropic events over the last two years, Clinton regularly used her time as a mother and now a grandmother to remind Americans about her passion for early childhood education or paid leave for mothers and fathers. But Clinton rarely used those stories to convey a message about her own character aspects, something Democrats close to her would like to change.
    "Reintroducing her is important because we want to make sure that the opposing party and even other Democrats aren't able to cast the secretary in a light that just isn't her," Bakari Sellers, a South Carolina Democrat who ran for lieutenant governor in 2014, told CNN. "She has an amazing skill to connect with voters and we just have to give her that opportunity."
    And while the job of retooling Clinton's image will be the job of multiple people on the communications team, it will fall primarily on Kristina Schake, a woman who, as Michelle Obama's communications director, turned the first lady into an everywoman known for dancing on national TV, gardening with her staff and touring colleges with her daughter.
    Schake, whose varied background includes working for issue campaigns, multinational corporations and Hollywood stars, will work inside the Clinton effort to make the former secretary of state more relatable.

    Smaller public role for Bill Clinton

    The Clinton team been eying an April announcement for more than a month, several top Democrats and donors told CNN. To a person, they expect Clinton will be a candidate by the end of the next two weeks.
    Her team is quietly planning visits to Iowa and New Hampshire as soon as she declares her candidacy, but she intends to travel alone. Her supporters say she needs to be her own person, someone who steps out of the sizable shadow that has been cast over her by her husband, former President Bill Clinton.
    A discussion is underway for how much to embrace or include the former president at the outset, but aides say Hillary Clinton will be the focal point.

    Unpaid volunteers working out of a kitchen

    The campaign-in-waiting, meanwhile, is starting to take shape as a full-blown presidential operation. Conversations are underway on a variety of topics, including such mundane matters as how voters and even staff should refer to Clinton: Madam Secretary, senator or simply, Hillary.
    Mook, who will become the campaign manager, began building out his team earlier this year. Clinton conducted one-on-one interviews for nearly all top positions. A number of political operatives, including several alumni of the Barack Obama and John Edwards campaigns in 2008, moved to New York earlier this month. The workers are currently unpaid volunteers, but have been promised paychecks soon.
    The new infusion of staffers has led to cramped quarters at Clinton's small personal office on West 45th Street, just off Times Square in midtown Manhattan. Some days, more than 25 people are jammed into a space once intended for Clintons' far smaller personal staff.
    The crammed quarters have led to some funny moments. The campaign's digital team — one of the most important pieces of the organization, tasked with blasting out her announcement — has opened up shop in the kitchen, using counters as standing desks.
    And for those who can't take the tight space, the storied lobby of the nearby Algonquin Hotel has been a secret Clinton headquarters for a few weeks.
    The nascent organization signed a lease late last week for an office in Brooklyn, a person familiar with the deal told CNN.
    The two-floor Brooklyn Heights office puts Clinton just across the river from Manhattan and near a focal point for Brooklyn transportation. The building — which bills itself as "Modern Offices. Brooklyn Cool" —also houses offices for Morgan Stanley and the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York.
    The staffing decisions and signing of the lease signal an imminent announcement. The Federal Elections Commission mandates prospective campaigns have only 15 days between conducting campaign activities - like booking an office - and being officially throwing open the doors for yet another Clinton presidential campaign.