The beginning of the end of Hillary Clinton’s presidential aspirations in 2008 came somewhere amid the rural towns, cornfields and wind farms of Iowa.
Now, in her second attempt at the White House, Clinton returns armed with a new staff, a new strategy and a new aggressiveness to win over the state’s notoriously finicky caucus goers.
Clinton’s new approach to Iowa includes small events where she can talk one on one with voters, connecting with Democratic activists and doing things the Iowa way.
On Wednesday, for example, she marked her second straight day in in the state in a family-owned produce company in a small town outside Des Moines, talking about small business with a handful of Iowans.
One woman told Clinton she feels she has no voice when it comes to the government. “I hope to be that voice – that champion for you and others like you,” Clinton responded.
As Clinton mingled with voters, her campaign was clicking into high gear, taking nothing for granted despite her runaway lead in polls for the Democratic nomination.
Thom Hart, chairman of the Scott County Democrats and a former mayor of Davenport, for example, said he received no calls from Clinton’s campaign last time around. He ended up supporting the eventual winner, Barack Obama.
This time, Hart has received six calls already from Clinton aides, even before there was a campaign. Since her Sunday announcement, he has gotten three calls.
“It’s a different approach,” said Hart approvingly.
That’s not to say Iowa Democrats are ready to hand it to Clinton.
First, Clinton’s own history shows the early polls can change a lot. In 2007, Clinton was leading polls in Iowa but ended up coming in a humiliating third place in the state’s pivotal precinct caucuses behind Obama and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, both of whom had built massive organizations and established connections in the state early.
Second, even those who back her want another top-tier candidate to jump in to help energize voters who will eventually be critical in the general election in this important swing state.
“Most Democrats want to see a competitive contest,” said Mark Langgin, a Democratic consultant in Iowa who is not affiliated with any candidate.
Clinton aides insist she prefers this kind of campaigning, but she has never been as good at it as her husband or Obama.
In her memoir “Hard Choices,” Clinton called the third-place finish “excruciating.” She left the state and didn’t return for nearly seven years.
Some Democrats worry that Clinton has not kept in touch with Iowans over the years and had urged her to announce her campaign earlier and visit the state. She has not been here since last fall during the midterm elections.
Christopher Budzisz, director of the Loras College Poll in Dubuque, said there’s still some “lingering resentment that’s she not as approachable,” but he thinks she will be able to overcome that.
“Iowans like to be courted. They like to see the candidates and touch the candidates,” he said. “She took it for granted.”
Earlier Wednesday, Clinton held an unannounced roundtable at a local diner in Marshalltown, about an hour northeast of Des Moines. Participants included farmers, small business owners and Democratic activists.
“I’m glad to be back,” she told them.
In early 2007, a leaked memo showed that a senior Clinton aide had suggested that she abandon Iowa to save her time and money for the Super Tuesday states. Later that year, a prominent Clinton supporter criticized the caucus as “undemocratic.”
In December 2007, in one of final efforts to win the state, Clinton went on a 99-county, five-day blitz in a helicopter dubbed the “Hill-o-copter” that was mocked for its cost.
She came off as distant and presumptuous. “She wasn’t a fan of retail politics,” said Timothy Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa
Campaign aides insist this time will be different.
Ready for Hillary, a political action committee that helped lay the groundwork for her second presidential run, helped recruit volunteers and dispatched a team of organizers early to meet with labor leaders and party activists. Emily’s List, a political action committee that endorsed Clinton, hosted an event in Des Moines to push for the election of a female president. And top Clinton aides visited Iowa ahead of her announcement to meet with activists, elected officials and labor and progressive leaders.
“We’re humble. We’re not taking anything for granted,” Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook wrote in a fundraising email to supporters Wednesday. “We will out-work our opponents and fight for every vote we can win.”