Hillary Clinton returns to the public eye amid speculation about 2016

Holly Bailey
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It’s been just two months since Hillary Clinton left her post as President Barack Obama’s secretary of state. But as she re-emerges this week to deliver a pair of speeches honoring women's contributions to public life, it's as if the political world hadn’t seen her in ages.

Clinton's appearance on Friday morning at media maven Tina Brown's Women of the World summit in New York—coming just three days after an appearance at a gala honoring women in leadership in Washington—looks to only further intensify the unofficial parlor game of political junkies and the media just under 43 months until Election Day 2016: Will she run for president again?

Clinton has repeatedly said she has no plans for another White House run, but hasn’t quite ruled it out. And as a result, every move she makes has been viewed through the prism of a potential candidacy.

Her decision to open what aides described as a “transition” office in Washington after leaving the Obama administration prompted questions about her political future. As did a video released last month by the Human Rights Campaign, in which the former first lady and New York senator publicly backed same-sex marriage.

On Thursday, it was announced that she's writing a book about her time as secretary of state set to be published in 2014—just ahead of the frenzy of the next presidential campaign. Add to that the scrutiny over her decision to give one of her first paid appearances on the speaking circuit later this month in Dallas—the same day former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a potential 2016 rival, is set to appear nearby on a book tour.

Meanwhile, virtually every aspect of her Tuesday appearance at a Kennedy Center gala in Washington was scrutinized for potential political clues. Commentators on the cable news networks noted that her blond hair was several inches shorter. The black hipster glasses she wore in the final weeks of her tenure at the State Department when she was recovering from a concussion were gone.

And, as CNN reported, she looked “refreshed”—perhaps a given after a whirlwind four years as Obama’s chief overseas envoy that took her around the world and back again literally every month.

People in Hillaryland—as her orbit has been repeatedly referred to—haven’t encouraged the frenzy over questions about her political future, insisting people are getting ahead of themselves in considering Clinton a 2016 candidate. But they haven’t exactly discouraged it either—as aides and those closest to Clinton have offered little to no information about how she has spent her time out of the public eye or even what her public speeches will be about.

Asked about her speech in New York and her upcoming gig in Dallas, Philippe Reines, Clinton’s longtime spokesman, replied in an email, “There’s not a whole lot to tell.”

It's not surprising that Clinton is wary of showing her cards too soon. When she launched her campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination in early 2007, Clinton entered the race with an aura of inevitability. But that collapsed when Obama began his competing bid, leading to a long and divisive primary battle that some Clinton insiders are still bitter about.

Clinton is said to be cautious about putting herself in that position again. And while her camp won't put a timeline on her decision, Democratic operatives have privately said they expect she will delay her 2016 decision as long as possible—not unlike Mitt Romney, who lost a bid for the GOP nomination in 2008 but began unofficially running for the party's 2012 nod long before formally entering the race.

But it's unclear how long Clinton can actually delay. Already, her indecision is said to be having an impact on other Democrats eying the race—including Vice President Joe Biden, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, all of whom are looking to court party donors in advance of what will be an expensive race.

Clinton’s ambiguity about her future hasn’t discouraged her most fervent supporters from laying the groundwork for her potential White House run. At least three political committees have launched in recent months to raise funds and organize grass-roots activity around a Clinton 2016 campaign—including Ready for Hillary, which held a 50-person rally outside Clinton’s Washington speech and is planning to hold a similar gathering on Friday in New York.

The group, which filed as a super PAC with the Federal Election Commission in January and launched its official website this week, is being run by several former Clinton aides—including Matt Felan, who was deputy national finance director for Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Seth Bringman, a former Clinton spokesman who is the group’s communications director, says Ready for Hillary has already seen strong financial support from a network of longtime Clinton donors—though he declined to say how much the group has raised or plans to raise. He said the money will be spent, in part, to “defend her from attacks” while Clinton determines her political future.

“This is really about organizing support and having that in place for when or if she decides to run,” Bringman said. “We’ll be ready.”

He was careful to note that the group was complying with election laws that prohibit coordination between potential candidates and their campaigns and independent committees spending money on their behalf. But asked if the group would exist if Clinton had suggested publicly or through intermediaries that she didn’t want people rallying around a potential 2016 bid, Bringman laughed.

“Her supporters would still be very vocal,” Bringman replied. “Regardless of what she might say about her interest in running for president, I think her supporters would still be out there encouraging her to change her mind.”

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