Hillary Clinton's no-frills campaign

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Monticello, Iowa (CNN)There is no fizzle and no fanfare.

But that's the point as Hillary Clinton, the most famous woman in the world, unveils her latest makeover here in the state where her previous White House dream died.
There's no pumping rock anthem or cheering supporters waving "Hillary" banners. Vows to take back America or remake the world along with warnings that 2016 will be the most important election in a generation are noticeably absent.
Instead, Clinton is taking her first official steps on what she hopes is the road to the White House surrounded by starter motors and tools in a tiny auto repair shop and a low slung community college building in far eastern Iowa.
    "I'm running for president because I think that Americans and their families need a champion, and I want to be this champion," Clinton said Tuesday as she sat around a table with seven students and educators. "I want to stand up and fight for people so that they cannot just get by, but they get ahead and they can stay ahead."
    Instead of a raucous rally, Clinton opened up with a wonkish -- and at times dull -- seminar on education policy at Kirkwood Community College. She spoke before 22 people and a few reporters in Monticello, a town of agricultural machinery merchants, hardware stores, wooden homes with peeling paint and, incongrously, a Mexican restaurant, nestled on the Iowa prairies.
    She did, however, allow herself a stop at Chipotle on her way to Iowa and a fancy coffee once she got there.

    Campaign theater

    The theater of the first few days of Clinton's latest presidential bid is noticeable since most campaign launches are designed to make a splash. This one seems designed to do the exact opposite.
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    The former first lady, senator and secretary of state is being born again as a reformed presidential candidate, and seems determined not to give off the air of entitlement and inevitability that doomed her last time.
    "I'm here in Iowa to begin a conversation ... to hear from people about what's on your minds, what the challenges that you see are," Clinton said.
    Aides promised that ideas and policies will come later.
    It's a far cry from the 112 nation odyssey which encompassed some of the world's most exotic spots when Clinton was secretary of state. It's also a million miles away from the plush lifestyle of corporate jets and presidential suites that cushioned her on the corporate speaking circuit.
    As she spoke, President Barack Obama, the man who built an Iowa grassroots movement which kept her from the White House in 2008, was unveiling historic moves in his rapprochment with Communist Cuba.
    Once, such sweeping foreign policy drama would have been her responsibility.
    But here was Clinton addressing the more prosaic concerns of what her campaign is calling "Everyday Americans" -- how to pay for further education, how to survive as a working mom and how kids can stack up college credits while still at high school.
    Clinton's "conversation" on Tuesday was decidedly of the softball variety. There was little chance for reporters to pose questions about the most controversial aspects of her candidacy. And her interlocutors in the roundtable had other things on their minds.
    That meant Clinton did not have to weigh in on her controversial private email account from her days at the State Department, her mixed record as secretary of state or on foreign donors to her family's philanthropic organization.

    Traditions

    There is nothing new about candidates dodging tough questions. But what is unique about Clinton's launch is the other new campaign traditions that didn't happen.
    The start of most presidential campaigns see large press packs of reporters descend on gymnasiums or sports arenas packed with supporters, in a show of strength meant to make a point about a candidate's viability.
    Often, candidates choose a symbolic spot. In 2007, Obama drew thousands of people on a frigid morning to the Illinois statehouse in Springfield where Abraham Lincoln once held court.
    This time around, Republican Ted Cruz made clear his intentions to court evangelical voters by launching his campaign at Virginia's Liberty University, which was founded by the late preacher Jerry Fallwell. Another fellow Republican senator, Marco Rubio of Florida, on Monday chose Miami's Freedom Tower, where the government once processed Cuban immigrants fleeing the Castro government to stress his family's roots and humble origins.
    Clinton's aides have said a bigger unveiling will come in May. But for now, he only remarkable thing about Clinton's launch pad was how nondescript it was.
    The college building was situated opposite of shining agricultural silos next to a highway close to the Wisconsin and Illinois borders. The scent of a freshly manured field wafted on the breeze.

    Clinton's task

    But then, Clinton's task is different than that of most candidates.
    She hardly has a problem with name recognition, will likely raise piles of campaign cash and may end up with no serious Democratic opposition in the first-in-the-nation caucus state.
    But Clinton is hoping there is a second chance for her to make a good first impression with Iowa's notoriously exacting political activists, who like to prod, poke and get to know a candidate personally before committing to support them.
    Clinton learned the perils of not connecting with Iowans in 2008. She has none of the affection for the state that she and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, reserve for New Hampshire, which has saved their political hides several times. But she is trying.
    When the black van in which she had journeyed on a road trip from New York crossed the Iowa border, it marked the first time she had visited the state as a presidential candidate since the fateful night of January 3, 2008, when she lost the caucuses.
    Not only did she come in behind Obama on that disastrous night, Clinton couldn't even beat former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who had camped out in Iowa for years.
    Now she's back and determined not to make the same mistake again. Clinton is vowing not to repeat the top down, complacent campaign that led Iowans to turn against her last time. This time, its bottom up, Obama style. She's positioning herself as the vessel for the hopes and dreams of the Americans left behind by the tepid economic recovery.
    She arrived not in a sleek corporate jet, or a rented plane full of media and staff, but in her van trailed by a Secret Service SUV -- the legacy of her time as first lady.
    Some of the big time Washington journalists who had traveled to Iowa to cover her 2016 debut couldn't even get into the building, so keen was the campaign to offer an intimate setting and to make Iowans the focus. Only a small pool of reporters was allowed.
    "Right now, we are focused on this ramp up period," said a Clinton campaign official, speaking anonymously to discuss strategy. "There will be time later for bigger events. Especially in this first period we are focused on allowing Hillary to have these one on one conversations and hear from Iowans from all parts of the state."

    Surreal moments

    But while events inside the building lacked a little in spectacle, there were surreal moments outside.
    When Clinton's van arrived and drove around the back of the building, a pack of journalists staged a mini running of the bulls-style charge and set off in pursuit, causing a stir on social media that may be remembered longer than the candidate's heavy-going seminar.
    The GOP at least made a token attempt to picket her appearance, sending a "Nerd Squad" to distribute flyers offering to turn Clinton's email servers over to experts to retreive her deleted communications.
    And a man on a bike rode up with a sign reading "she has a better body than Christie and a far better hairdo than Trump -- there may be hope for Hillary after all."
    But for all her outreach to Iowans, she still found a home away from home for a New Yorker during an unannounced stop at a coffee shop selling a special masala chai tea and caramellow latte.