Hillary Clinton’s 2008 run lingers over her 2016 bid

Des Moines, Iowa CNN  — 

Democrats in Iowa are betting that a little competition among friends is good for everyone – including the front-runner.

With Hillary Clinton on her way to the Hawkeye State hours after making her presidential campaign official, Iowa Democrats feel that a competitive primary will help the state party and will therefore help the former secretary of state.

“The more people that get in and expand this debate, the better the party will be,” Bob Meddaugh, a Democratic activist and supporter of Vice President Joe Biden’s 2008 presidential bid, said at a Polk County Democrats event. “And I think it will help Hillary, too.”

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And even those behind the Clinton’s Iowa operation are saying they’ll fight for every vote and they’re anticipating primary challengers.

“We expect the caucus to be competitive,” said Matt Paul, Clinton’s 2016 Iowa campaign manager. “Hillary’s committed to working hard to earn the support of every Iowan.”

Democrats in the first-in-the-nation caucus state are hungry for an exciting, competitive contest, one where multiple candidates are asking for their vote by showing up on their doorstep. They are jealous of Republicans who have had regular cattle-call events in the Hawkeye State and will likely have a dozen candidates to choose from.

“Iowa, we are really spoiled, we are used to that pressing the flesh and talking to these people,” said Monica McCarthy, the Union County Democratic Party chairwoman in 2008. “We expect that.”

Clinton’s ever-growing world of campaign staffers has watched Democrats like former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and along with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders tease presidential runs in Iowa. Though it may seem counterintuitive, Team Clinton’s hope is that one candidate will emerge as Clinton’s foil, someone who will push her to compete and run a competitive caucus campaign.

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Despite low poll numbers, O’Malley has emerged, in the eyes of Clinton supporters, as the most likely person to be her foil. He has been a repeat visitor to the state and received plaudits from a wide array of Iowa Democrats for the time he has put in. What’s more, O’Malley’s super PAC shipped a dozen staffers to Iowa to work on different campaigns during the 2014 midterm elections.

When Clinton arrives in Iowa on Tuesday to kick off her new bid for the White House, she’ll be armed with a new game plan and a new message, but the memories of her first presidential campaign are still waiting for her.

“She gives off the feeling that she really doesn’t want to be here,” Marcia H. Fulton, a Democratic activist, said about her lingering impressions of Clinton from her time in Iowa eight years ago. “Now that may change this time, but that is the way it felt last time. It was, ‘Ok, now I have to do Iowa.’”

That sentiment isn’t unique to Fulton.

A conversation with five women at a Polk County Democratic dinner late last week illustrated what is facing Clinton as she opens her candidacy with a two-day visit to Iowa on Tuesday. Their conversation focused on the vivid memories they have about her 2008 caucus bid, where she finished third.

Several Democrats at the dinner said Clinton’s last campaign in Iowa was cocky. The feeling made Obama’s staff look like “the cool kids” and Clinton’s team “not,” they said, making Obama’s effort, in the end, the winner.

“She kind of thought she was inevitable and her staff were going to tell us how to do things,” said McCarthy, who recalled once telling a overbearing Clinton staffer, “Wait a minute honey. No, no, no. You come to my county… you [need to] listen to us a little bit.”

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It isn’t that these women dislike the former secretary of state or her campaign – in fact, many of them think she is the best candidate in 2016. But they want options and, more than anything, they want the two men they met on Friday night – O’Malley and Webb – to return to Iowa, compete in the caucus and challenge Clinton for the Democratic nomination.

There is also realization among Clinton’s staff that the former first lady will never be able to run away with the caucus. Tom Harkin, an Iowa icon and a longtime U.S. senator, won 76.4% of caucus goers in Iowa when he ran for president in 1992. If Harkin, the state’s most beloved Democrat, can lose nearly 25% of all voters, Clinton’s campaign – who wouldn’t put a number their candidate’s Iowa ceiling – believe there will be a healthy number of Democrats in 2016 who want to vote against the party’s frontrunner.

Clinton announced her candidacy for president in a video on Sunday, and shortly there after her campaign announced her first trip would be to the Hawkeye State. The two-day, multi-stop trip is an acknowledgement that she can’t perform poorly in Iowa this time around. Clinton’s campaign aides privately say they recognize that activists who have negative memories from her 2008 campaign are not wrong.

Clinton was not at her best in Iowa, they say. She came into Iowa as the favorite for the nomination, and both Clinton and Obama staffers from that campaign have said that she acted like it. It wasn’t until weeks after finishing third in Iowa, when Clinton was pushed to run a more humble campaign that she turned out some surprising wins.

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To run that humble campaign, Clinton plans to go small in Iowa and elsewhere. Clinton’s two open press Iowa events this week will both be small gatherings, one at a local business and another at a community college. Clinton is also road tripping from New York to Iowa, something aides have said was her idea.

Iowa Democrats think this will bode well for Clinton. The women at the Polk County dinner said that the few times they met the former first lady in small, one-on-one settings, she was charming and likable.

Fulton glowingly described a 2007 private roundtable she attended with Clinton in western Iowa.

“She sat down and almost like kicked her shoes off and was really personable,” she said. “There were maybe a dozen people in the room and it was real difference. Although I had loved her speech and I was excited and everything, in the small groups she really was personable.”

The reasons Iowans are itching for a competitive caucus are not all for the love of the party. Some of it is self-serving: The more active Clinton is in Iowa, the more other candidates will be forced to campaign in the state. That means more fundraising opportunities for Iowa county Democrats and more prestige for top Democrats throughout the state.

It also means money for Iowa’s economy. Some economists estimate that more than $51 million was spent in Iowa during the uber-competitive 2008 caucus.

But for women like McCarthy, Fulton and the three others in their group – Judy Woods, JoAnn Larkin Bradley and Carol Smith – Clinton running hard in Iowa is not about money, it’s about options.

“I am totally an equal opportunity Iowan,” Fulton said. “I just think an awful lot of questions haven’t been answered. There are so many things going on in the nation and the caucus is a time that we can be sure our nominee is right on the positions.”

CNN’s Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.