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Ready, But Wary: Iowa Democrats Weigh Giving Clinton a Second Chance

Shannon Rubino holds a campaign sign for Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. outside a campaign stop in Vinton, Iowa Sunday, Dec. 30, 2007. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya) Paul Sancya / AP

DES MOINES- Iowa Democrats are ready for Hillary – for now.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton makes her first major visit to the early-voting state this weekend, but her huge lead in the polls here obscures a certain lack of passion for her potential presidential candidacy among some key party activists.

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Democrats here don’t rule out the possibility of falling in love with another candidate – as they did with Barack Obama in 2008 -- and backing that person over Clinton again.

“I’m just not excited about her,” said Diane Pickle, an accountant who was an Obama precinct captain in 2008. “I admire her. I think she’s a wonderful person.”

In interviews this week with 15 major organizers, elected officials and activists in Iowa who helped power Obama’s upset victory in the 2008 caucuses, they described Obama’s early campaign as a political dream come true. His speeches were inspiring, his charisma unparalleled, his supporters a perfect mix of young and old, liberal and moderate.

“Barack blew me away,” says Tom Miller, Iowa’s longtime attorney general, who was one of the highest-ranking Democrats here to endorse Obama in 2008 and remains a strong supporter.

But when the conversation turned to Clinton, who is visiting Iowa for retiring Senator Tom Harkin’s famous “steak fry” on Sunday, the activists sounded more like political pundits. Nearly all of these activists said no other potential candidate is as experienced or qualified as the former secretary of state and first lady. Foreign policy would be a key theme of the 2016 campaign, they noted, right in her wheelhouse. And Clinton is electable, several said.

I’m looking. I keep thinking, ‘am I the only one looking? I say to people, ‘why not Joe Biden?'

“I have a hard time viewing it (2008) as a vote against her, as opposed to it was time for something new and giving that a try,” said Phil Roeder, a public relations professional who was a precinct captain and organizer for Obama in 2008.

He added, “Looking ahead to 2016, some of the things that have been weaknesses of Hillary Clinton might be strengths of her today, particularly in terms of her experience. With the things happening around the globe, being secretary of state will be a big plus.”

These 15 activists, part of a 164-member “Iowa State Leadership Committee” that Obama’s campaign formed in September 2007, are not necessarily representative of all Iowa Democrats. Many of them are deeply involved in politics and had one-on-one meetings with Obama and Clinton in 2007. Nearly all are perennial attendees at the steak fry.

But activists like these are important, because they are the kind of people who helped Obama out-organize Clinton during his first campaign. Clinton finished third in the Iowa caucuses in 2008.

Despite their hesitance, these activists’ comments now should largely comfort the former first lady.

Eight of the 15 said they are likely to support Clinton if she runs, and only one activist said she was adamantly opposed to Clinton.

Most of them said their decision to back Obama in 2008 was a vote in favor of him, not because of any antipathy toward his rival.

“It was a difficult one, because I had always been impressed by Hillary Clinton,” said Jacqueline Easley, a health care administrator here, referring to the choice in 2008. Easley said she is excited to vote for Clinton this time.

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Still, a few of these activists have some lingering frustration with Clinton. Tom Hockensmith, a county supervisor in Des Moines, said he introduced former President Clinton at an event in 2007 that both Clintons attended. He sought a short meeting with Hillary Clinton afterward, but her staff told him she didn’t have time.

A few days later, Obama talked to him one-on-one for 15 minutes. He committed to Obama soon after.

“I want to have an opportunity to visit with her,” he said when asked if he would back Clinton in 2016. “People need to reach out and ask” for your support.

Abby Kennedy, who helped organize young professionals in 2008 for Obama, said the recent controversy about Clinton’s criticism of the president’s foreign policy views reminded her about what she did not like about the former secretary of state.

“I don’t trust the sincerity of all of the things she says, she can be pretty opportunistic,” said Kennedy. “Frankly, I’ve been an Obama supporter from the very beginning and I understand that she needs to create some distance from the administration, but that’s not really making friends with me.”

Obama, to these activists, was a special kind of candidate, and they don’t see another person like him among the potential alternatives to Clinton. Some of the activists struggled to even name other candidates, except for Vice President Joe Biden, who several praised but only 1 of the 15 said they wanted to vote for over Clinton. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has impressed a handful of these activists, but others were unfamiliar with both him and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has also made several trips to Iowa and suggested he will run for the Democratic nomination

“Joe Biden, he did horrible last time, and I don’t there’s any evidence he would do better. O’Malley has been here, and he hasn’t lit a fire in anybody,” said Frank Chiodo, a former state representative here who organized some of Obama’s events in the state in 2008.

Som Baccam, a nurse who did outreach to Des Moines Haitian and Pacific-Islander communities in 2008 for Obama, replied “who?” when a reporter asked her about Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who some liberal groups are urging to start a presidential campaign.

Warren, who has repeatedly said she does not want to run, does have some enthusiastic supporters among these activists. Three of them said they would be inclined to back her over Clinton if she entered the race.

“She’s (Warren) direct, she handles issues well, I think she could be a good leader,” said Sharon Malheiro, a Des Moines lawyer who hosted fundraisers for Obama and helped lead his outreach to Iowa’s LGBT community. “At some point, between the Bushes and the Clintons, do we ever get away from that?”

The activists’ relative unfamiliarity with the potential candidates, Miller said, is in part because of what he dubbed the Hillary Clinton effect. Potential Democratic candidates, wary of Clinton’s huge lead, are not meeting key Iowa activists as often as they did in the run-up to the 2008 primaries.

Miller himself, whose endorsement was highly sought in the 2008 cycle, said none of the potential candidates have requested personal meetings with him, although he has talked with O’Malley at Iowa Democratic events.

Another advantage for Clinton is that so far no issue seems to have galvanized Democrats in Iowa and raised the potential of someone running to Clinton’s right or left, as Obama did by emphasizing his opposition to the Iraq War in 2008. When asked what the most important issue the next president should confront, the answers from these activists were extremely varied. A handful mentioned foreign policy, with the rise of ISIS in the news this week. Others talked about immigration.

The economic populism and anti-Wall Street message of Warren was not high on these activists’ minds.

“I don’t think there’s a particular issue that people are yearning for at this point,” said Miller, who said he is leaning “heavily” towards Clinton.

Rose Vasquez, a retired attorney and a leader in Des Moines Latino community, was the strongest dissenter among the former Obama supporters and suggested she was very unlikely to back Clinton in the caucuses.

“They can point to Hillary and say she is supportive of a lot of equal rights and fair wage issues, but I have always sort of lumped them (the Clintons) with business interests more so than grassroots interests,” she said.

Vasquez though acknowledges that at least right now, a lot of her friends don’t share her negative view on Clinton.

“I’m looking. I keep thinking, ‘am I the only one looking?” she said. “I say to people, ‘why not Joe Biden?”

On the other hand, a few of these 15 were very strongly supportive of Clinton.

“I’m definitely rooting for Hillary this time. I’m excited she’s coming to the steak fry,” said Christopher Diebel, who works in public relations and was a precinct captain 2008 for Obama. “We elected a black president. Now it’s time for a woman.”