Democrats again look to Clinton, but hurdles from 2008 remain

Hillary Rodham Clinton campaigns in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 2008. Clinton remains popular among Iowa Democrats, but she hasn't said whether she'll run for president in 2016.
(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)

DAVENPORT, Iowa — Alta Price seems just the kind of person who could propel Hillary Rodham Clinton through the glass ceiling into the White House. A doctor and Democratic activist, she cited Clinton’s matchless resume as a former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of State.

Besides, Price allowed with a smile, “It would be very cool to have a woman president.”

But Price, 61, won’t necessarily support Clinton should she run again in 2016. “I would not vote for her or support her over some man if I thought the man was better on the issues,” said Price, who preferred Barack Obama to Clinton the first time she ran.


In 2008, Clinton was the overwhelming Democratic favorite, nationally and in Iowa, with an aura suggesting the actual tabulation of ballots was little more than a formality. Then Obama and his supporters proceeded to outwork, out-organize and out-strategize the New York senator, who finished a humbling third in the Iowa caucuses and never fully recovered.

Today, Clinton is once more the overwhelming favorite, both nationally and in Iowa, with a massive lead in opinion polls and the same can’t-miss talk among purveyors of the prevailing political wisdom.

There are important differences, chief among them Clinton’s uncertain status: She has yet to say whether she will make a second try for the White House. There is also the knowledge painfully acquired six years ago. “She’s smart enough to pull back and assess what didn’t work last time, what are the lessons learned from that, and to do it differently,” said Bonnie Campbell, a former Iowa attorney general and co-chairwoman of Clinton’s 2008 campaign, who is working to coax her into the 2016 race.

There are enough similarities, though, to suggest the certitude surrounding Clinton may be just as premature now as it was then.

There are plenty of Clinton supporters who say her time on the world stage only burnished her formidable credentials. “She’s a very intelligent woman. She can handle whatever you put on the table,” said Jerry Clemens, 64, a retired pressman from Bettendorf, part of Democratic-leaning eastern Iowa. “And her experience being in the White House with her husband can’t hurt.”

But all the hurdles that rose in 2008 remain in this state that starts the presidential balloting: the dynastic overtones of a Clinton candidacy; lingering fatigue from the serial melodramas of Bill Clinton’s administration; a Democratic base that leans decidedly left; and an abiding suspicion of Hillary Clinton’s business and Wall Street ties.


“I see Hillary as a corporatist Democrat, and that tends not to, in my opinion, serve the interests of the general population,” said Bob Babcock, 61, one of about 250 party faithful who recently braved a cold, snowy night to attend Scott County’s annual Democratic fundraising dinner.

Above all, there is firm resistance to any notion that Clinton deserves Democrats’ support: for coming in second to Obama in the 2008 nominating fight, for faithfully serving him as secretary of State, for offering the tantalizing prospect of once again making history, this time by installing the first woman in the Oval Office.

“Iowans haven’t really changed between 2008 and today,” said Janet Petersen, a state senator from Des Moines who attended an Iowa kickoff last month by the pro-Clinton group Ready for Hillary, but remains far from committed. “They still want to engage in a conversation … and get to know the candidates for president.

“Iowans want a candidate that wants the job,” Petersen added. “They’re not used to having to … actively recruit people to run.”

For now, Clinton has frozen the field in a way she did not in 2008, when more than half a dozen candidates competed at various points for the party’s nomination. Save for a visit apiece by Vice President Joe Biden, Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland and former Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana, Iowa has been notably absent so far of prospective Democratic White House contenders.

That is not to say, however, there is no interest in others besides Clinton. Babcock was among several who expressed hope that freshman Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who made her name crusading against Wall Street excesses, would change her mind and enter the contest. (She is now backing Clinton.) There is also deep affection for Biden, who barnstormed Iowa in his 1988 bid for president, ran again 20 years later and has not ruled out a third try.

Lynne Smith, 68, a retired technical writer, admired Clinton from afar when the candidate and her husband staged a downtown Davenport rally in July 2007. But Smith feels she personally got to know Biden when he stopped by the local Democratic headquarters during the 2008 campaign. “I just like him,” Smith said, as a jazz trio warmed up guests inside a drafty fairground rental hall. “He came across like an everyday guy.”

Clinton supporters say they fully expect a vigorous challenge. (In discussing 2016, every statement must be qualified by the fact no one really knows her intentions or speaks with authority about how a presidential campaign would operate.)

“I get up every day assuming one or more people will run, and I think they’ll find a hospitable audience,” said Jerry Crawford, a Des Moines attorney and longtime Democratic activist, who helped organize January’s Iowa launch by Ready For Hillary, a national group operating independent of Clinton. “That’s why we’re doing everything in our power now to put the groundwork in place that will encourage the secretary to get into the race.”

Crawford and others predicted that, unlike last time, Clinton’s effort in Iowa would be more bottom-up than top-down. Organizers hope to be in all 99 counties when Democrats gather for local conventions next Saturday, recruiting supporters and urging their involvement in one of several state contests, which could serve as a dry run for 2016. (Iowa has a governor’s race this year, along with contests for an open U.S. Senate seat and two open House seats. Control of the state Senate is also up for grabs.)

One thing Clinton would have to overcome in Iowa is memories of 2008, among them a leaked strategy memo recommending she skip the caucuses; a helicopter tour across the state — “a pickup truck might have been a little more effective,” David Nagle, a former congressman and Iowa Democratic chairman, suggested dryly; and the large entourage and other trappings that proved more off-putting than impressive to voters.

Perhaps the biggest question is whether, after looming so large as a national and international figure, Clinton is ready for the small time.

“She’s got to campaign in places where’s there only a few people,” said Jack Hatch, a state senator from Des Moines and Democrats’ leading candidate for governor. “She has to be seen as not entering an auditorium but sitting down and listening to voters ... in their homes, in cafes, in small towns. I know it will be difficult for her and her campaign, but it’s what Iowans want.”