This time eight years ago, when she first ran for president, Hillary Clinton was already officially a candidate.
“I’m in it to win it,” she said in a YouTube video posted on January 21, 2007.
But even though a second Hillary Clinton for president campaign is all but certain, she and those close to her are debating when she should jump in the race, potentially delaying her entry by months.
There is no waiting for Republicans, who are engaged in a furious behind-the-scenes scramble for advisers and donors. Mitt Romney, Republicans’ nominee in 2012, announced Friday he would bow out after just three weeks on the presidential speculation treadmill. Three Republican senators, two current governors and one former governor have all made active moves toward campaigns.
There could be ten or more Republican candidates by this summer. That might be when Hillary Clinton gets around to officially moving toward a campaign, if she heeds some confidantes, who are privately arguing for an announcement in July to coincide with the start of the third fundraising quarter. Delaying until the summer is an idea that is said to be gaining momentum against those who want to stick to the plan for an April start date.
The possibility of the delay is very real but still unsettled.
“I would say it’s 40 percent,” in the direction of those arguing for a delay, said one Democrat who supports a spring debut for Clinton’s presidential campaign. Another Democrat who saw merits in both time lines put the odds of a delay at 50 percent.
Democrats on both sides of the debate spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity so they could make their case without upsetting Clinton or those close to her for talking openly about internal deliberations.
Some Clinton loyalists worry that as the increasingly crowded Republican race heats up, the attacks on her could begin to stick without an apparatus in place to answer them.
The liberal superPAC American Bridge has been countering Republican attacks on Clinton’s behalf but many Democrats think it’s no substitute for a campaign messaging operation.
“They’re doing terrific research,” said one, “but they don’t know what her specific policy agenda is going to be. She should get in and start putting together a substantive policy agenda so the attacks that are going to begin to come from every single Republican who is jumping in to the race can be answered.”
The Democratic National Committee is beginning to take on a larger role in an effort to protect Clinton and the party brand but many Democrats are concerned even that won’t be enough.
Other supporters want Clinton to lay low as the Republican field heats up, convinced Clinton will avoid some fire if she’s undeclared and GOP candidates will take aim at each other instead.
“Never interrupt your opponent when it’s destroying itself. That event in Iowa - nobody hated that more than [RNC chairman] Reince Priebus,” said one Democrat, referring to the recent Iowa Freedom Summit, the first GOP cattle call for prospective candidates of many Republican presidential hopefuls (though noticeably neither Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney nor Rand Paul) attended. “Let’s get Sarah Palin out there, let’s get Donald Trump out there - the whole clown car.”
Some Democrats believe it’s also in Clinton’s best interest to wait until President Obama, whose approval ratings have begun to rebound, becomes more popular, since a campaign by his former secretary of state will undoubtedly be seen as an extension of his presidency. It’s a view shared by many at the White House who eye the entry of Clinton into the 2016 contest as the beginning of Obama’s lame duck phase.
But if Clinton waits, she could run the risk of looking like she’s taking the Democratic nomination for granted.
“The American people don’t like to see a candidate assume that something is theirs for the taking,” warned one Clinton supporter.
“If [Hillary Clinton] is trying to avoid a coronation it really is a terrible way to go about it. It sends a message that we don’t have to campaign in the primaries.” said a Democratic operative in Iowa, who warned it leaves an opening. “It really does require another candidate to fill that void”
And so far, no one has.
Vice President Joe Biden, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, former Virginia Senator Jim Webb and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders have all made the trek to Iowa in the last year, but none are being particularly agressive in recruiting staff or taking on Clinton.
“O’Malley hired one staff member the other day and that’s all anyone is talking about,” said the Iowa operative of the unusually quiet political scene in the early state. “It’s kinda weird.”
In 2008, Clinton’s air of inevitability was off putting to many voters. Clinton and her advisers have been looking to avoid it this time around.
But without an insurgent, Obama-like candidate waiting in the wings (Clinton insiders are now pretty much convinced that populist darling and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren won’t run, despite initial concerns she could mount a serious challenge from the left), many loyalists argue Clinton is safe to wait.
“If she’s out there working hard, making her case, speaking to voters, that’s what’s going to matter,” said a Washington-based Clinton backer who thinks a delayed campaign launch could benefit her.
It won’t benefit her campaign coffers, however.
“Money will not flow until she’s actually running,” said one Democrat who cited powerful donor support for a Clinton run but acknowledged, “People don’t give that kind of money on speculation.”
The numerous Clinton loyalists interviewed for this piece admit there are arguments for both timelines. But perhaps the most important factor in deciding when to jump in the race is Hillary Clinton’s personal inclination to put off campaigning.
The last time she ran for president, she entered the race in January 2006, almost two years before the election. The Democratic primary contest turned into a bruising slog that she is not eager to repeat.
“You can’t dance in that spotlight for two years,” a Clinton loyalist said. “She’s not Rand Paul, she’s the most famous woman on earth and every move is scrutinized.”