Hillary Clinton's Iowa campaign opens: Populist theme, convivial in tone

Hillary Clinton's Iowa campaign opens: Populist theme, convivial in tone
Hillary Rodham Clinton takes part in a roundtable discussion with students and educators in Monticello, Iowa. (Michael B. Thomas / AFP/Getty Images)

Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday began to sketch out a presidential campaign focused on persistent economic difficulties facing Americans, making her case with a tacit acknowledgment of the limited success on that front under the Obama administration.

Her first campaign day since her Sunday announcement was equal parts traveling circus and listening tour, taking place in the state that started her slide toward defeat in the 2008 contest.

Clinton adopted a populist air at her first public event, which was held in an auto shop at Kirkwood Community College's Jones County Regional Center. She toured the facility and then sat at a table with teachers and students, under two vertical car lifts.

"I think we all know that Americans have come back from some pretty tough economic times, and our economy and our country are much better off because American families have basically done whatever it took to make it work," she said in introductory remarks. "But I think it's fair to say as you look across the country, the deck is still stacked in favor of those already at the top. And there's something wrong with that.

"There's something wrong when CEOs make 300 times more than the typical worker. There's something wrong when American workers keep getting more productive … but that productivity is not matched in their paychecks. There's something wrong when hedge fund managers pay lower tax rates than nurses or the truckers I saw on I-80 as I was driving here over the last two days.

"So we've got to figure out in our country how to get back on the right track," said Clinton, who had received strong support from big business in past campaigns.

Clinton's first appeal was deeply focused on Iowa — besides the interstate reference, she touted the college debt levels of the state at one point. But she also used the visit to remind voters of the biography of one of the world's best-known women.

She recounted her mother's abandonment as a child, her father's work as a small-business man, her church's teachings about helping others, her lawyer work for the Children's Defense Fund, her efforts to pass a healthcare initiative — which failed — a successful program for children's coverage as first lady, her work as a New York senator after the Sept. 11 attacks and her tenure as secretary of State.

She said the country faced "four big fights": building "the economy of tomorrow, not yesterday," strengthening families, protecting the nation's security, and getting "unaccountable money" out of a dysfunctional political system. She raised the prospect of a constitutional amendment to block the sorts of campaign donations that have been used by all sides--Clinton herself is expected to benefit in 2016--but have particularly helped Republicans.

During an education roundtable, Clinton said she supported President Obama's proposal to make community college free. She also backed the controversial national standards known as Common Core that have drawn opposition among both social conservatives and liberals.

"Common Core started off as a bipartisan effort – it was actually nonpartisan, it wasn't politicized," Clinton said. "It was to try to come up with a core of learning that we might expect students to achieve across our country, no matter what kind of school district they were in, no matter how poor their family was. That there wouldn't be two tiers of education."

Clinton spent much of the hourlong discussion asking questions of the students and educators, leaning in with her chin resting on her hand, nodding and murmuring "mmm-hmm" in agreement.

The panelists included a single mother of three who had returned to school and relied upon work study and a Pell grant, an instructor who lamented divisive debates over education policy, and a high school student who earned nearly two years of college credits through a partnership between her school and Kirkwood.

Jason McLaughlin, the principal of Central City High School, noted that students not only earned credits that allowed them to spend less on college tuition, but also experienced how a college operates, preparing them for their own time on campus.

Clinton chimed in about her experience: "I was so scared," she said. "Really! I called home and said I wanted to go home. Called collect in those days."

Instructor Diane Temple and McLaughlin also noted that two decades ago, students could graduate high school and earn a decent living in Iowa. But today, they said, students need more education.

"You go back 20 years, you're looking at jobs with benefits. The economy was great," McLaughlin said.

Clinton, smiling broadly, responded, "I remember." (Her husband was president at the time.)

Clinton's intent this time has been to break from her 2008 image in Iowa as an imperial candidate; past supporters in the state still wince at the memory of her using a helicopter for travel.

This time: no helicopter. Clinton didn't use any sort of aircraft, traveling from her New York home to Iowa in a van, accompanied by aides.

"I had a great drive across the country. One of the highlights was seeing spring finally," Clinton told reporters after the roundtable, noting that she saw tulips, daffodils and flowering trees.

Clinton pledged to roll out specific policy proposals in the coming weeks and months. "More to come, everybody."

The campaign's public relations effort was evident first thing Tuesday, as the candidate sought to do normal activities while trailed by reporters and watched by potential supporters.

She stopped at a coffee shop in Le Claire, in eastern Iowa, where she thanked the staff "for having us and all of these people. I love it."

"Hi, Jen. Hi, Paul," she said, talking to the people behind the counter as she ordered tea, a latte and water.

She sat down with three customers for a conversation that presumably had a good chance of being about politics or her 2016 plan. But reporters in the coffee shop couldn't hear what she was saying, other than a brief mention of her trip from New York.

On a later walk with the mayor of Le Claire, Bob Scannell, Clinton was greeted by Karla Higgins, who said she had voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 primary.

"Well, I hope I can convince you to work for me," Clinton said.

Higgins said later that she backs Clinton this time.

"I want to continue with the change," she said. "I think she can do it."

Mehta reported from Iowa and Decker from Los Angeles.