Ready for Hillary? Courting a candidate for 2016
How formidable a potential candidate is Hillary Clinton? A group laying groundwork for her possible 2016 presidential campaign said it is being offered million-dollar donations -- before she has even announced a run.
"We have turned away seven-figure checks," Adam Parkhomenko, executive director of Ready For Hillary, told AFP in the political action committee's headquarters.
Such is Clinton's current appeal that the group, which is legally entitled to raise unlimited funds, has capped individual contributions at $25,000, arguing that the most famous non-candidate in the United States is already benefiting from something far more valuable: grass roots momentum.
In a freshly painted office in a suburban shopping area, volunteers were slipping bumper stickers into envelopes bound for supporters, and pre-campaign hats and t-shirts were stacked in cardboard boxes. An aide scrolled through the group's flashy website, which launched in April.
Their mission centers on the burning question of the 2016 election cycle: will Clinton, who lost 2008's bitter Democratic race to Barack Obama only to make peace with her rival and serve as his secretary of state, seek the presidency after his second term?
"We want to get Hillary in the race, that's the immediate goal," said communications director Seth Bringman.
"We're laying the foundation."
Perhaps years before a Clinton announcement, the group has enlisted key Obama veterans including Jeremy Bird, Obama's 2012 national field director, and Mitch Stewart who ran campaign operations in battleground states.
"If Clinton would decide to run, there'd be a tremendous migration of talent toward that campaign," Stewart said.
Senator Claire McCaskill last month became the first lawmaker to endorse Ready For Hillary's efforts, which she said were "critical" to electing Clinton.
Parkhomenko said more than 5,000 people have written checks -- many for $20.16 -- for the group, which as a so-called super PAC is legally barred from having contact with the potential candidate or her inner circle.
"They are an independent entity acting on their own passion," Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill said.
"Their energy and enthusiasm to convince her to run is inspiring, though only she in the end can make that very personal decision."
Many observers say it is only a matter of time before the former first lady, who teased Twitter users last month when she unveiled her account with a bio including the letters "TBD" -- to be determined -- makes it official.
"You don't have to be slurping down the Hillary Kool-Aid to say that she's the frontrunner," said Tobe Berkovitz, a professor of communications at Boston University who studies US election politics.
He noted how the party's presumptive standard-bearer trounces rivals -- Democrat or Republican -- in most 2016 polls, has high approval ratings coming out of her job at the State Department, and is earning a reported $200,000 per speaking engagement, bulking up an already impressive Clinton fortune.
If the election were held in 2014 instead of 2016, "I don't think any Democrat has the 'cojones' to run against her in a primary," Berkovitz said.
But 40 months is an eternity in US politics -- as Senator John McCain knows all too well.
"Three years before the 2008 election, nobody had ever heard of a young senator named Barack Obama, so there's a lot of things that can happen between now and then," McCain told AFP on Friday.
"She learned a lot from (2008). I think she emerges as the front-runner, but having said that, there are so many twists and turns."
Clinton's immense following inadvertently highlights a Democratic Achilles heel: the party's relatively shallow bench of up-and-coming stars, compared with at least four serious presidential prospects on the Republican side.
And action by Ready For Hillary may well be galvanizing early opposition -- an anti-Clinton group, The Hillary Project, launched its website Friday, promising to "wage a war on Hillary Clinton's image."
But McCain admitted that Clinton could achieve what he ultimately could not.
"There is no doubt her tour as secretary of state enhanced her possibilities of becoming the president," he said.
Having left government, Clinton has embraced global work on women's and children's issues, is writing her memoirs, and has reportedly opened an office to help her transition to private life.
But has Clinton, at 65, peaked too soon?
Parkhomenko said no, stressing that early organization was key to a 21st Century campaign -- even if a candidate is still being courted.
"We're spending each and every day making sure that we don't look back two years from now and wonder what we could have done to build the structure that she needed," he said.