Point of No Return: Democrats Want Definitive Signal from Hillary Clinton

Image: Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reacts while speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations with CFR President Richard Haass in Manhattan, New York

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reacts while speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations with CFR President Richard Haass in Manhattan, New York June 12, 2014. Clinton reflected on her career in government and her new book, "Hard Choices." REUTERS/Andrew Kelly (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS MEDIA PROFILE) ANDREW KELLY / Reuters

Analysis: Hillary Clinton isn’t simply dipping her toes into the 2016 presidential waters; it looks more like she’s sizing up for a somersault – with a full twist – off a diving board.

But if she ends up deciding not to jump in, Democrats want an answer sooner rather than later.

Hillary Clinton: Why I might not run for president 3:28

In the past few months, Clinton has concluded a big book tour with dozens of news interviews; distanced herself (either in small or substantial ways) from her party’s currently unpopular president; and is now heading next month to Iowa, which traditionally holds the first presidential nominating contest.

What’s significant about all of this activity, Democrats say, is that the more she walks and talks like a presidential candidate – effectively freezing out any other Democrats even contemplating a run – the more difficult it becomes to turn around and say no.

“The longer it goes, the harder it becomes for her not to run, unless there is a significant reason she can't,” says Democratic communications strategist Karen Finney, an MSNBC contributor.

“A ‘no’ has to come earlier than a ‘yes,’” adds another Democratic strategist, who wished to remain anonymous. “If it's a no, I suspect she won't let it drag on.”

The question is timing, of course. Some Democrats believe she has until early next year to state she’s NOT running. Others believe that it should come before or after the midterm elections.

“Secretary Clinton can freeze the Democratic field as long as she wants, but I would suspect she and her team aren't interested in dragging it out any more than anyone else,” says Stephanie Cutter, a former top aide to President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign. “ I think she has until early 2015 to make a decision.”

While all of her steps since leaving her position as secretary of state suggest plans for a presidential run beginning next year, there also have been doubts she might not run.

Has all the scrutiny over her news interviews (“dead broke!” “distancing herself from Obama!”) made her think twice about running for president in a media environment that has changed considerably since her last presidential run? Does she simply want to be a grandmother now that daughter Chelsea is expecting her first child?

Why Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama Are ‘Hugging it Out’ 1:51

After all, deciding to run for the presidency could be a 10-year endeavor – two years running in 2016, four years in a first term and another four years if re-elected.

Earlier this year, Politico reported that two of Clinton’s closest advisers (Cheryl Mills and Maggie Williams) were against her running.

Yet since then, all the signs – the book tour, the distancing from Obama (either real or perceived), the Sept. 14 visit to Iowa with her husband – all point to a White House run.

And that has done two things. One, it has frozen the Democratic field. According to data compiled by U.S. News & World Report, Vice President Joe Biden; Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley; and former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer have made a combined 12 trips to Iowa and New Hampshire since the beginning of 2013.

By comparison, Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Texas Gov. Rick Perry; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., have made nearly three times as many visits – a combined 30.

Those visits give a potential presidential candidate more exposure and name identification with voters.

Two, it possibly opens Clinton up to blame from Democrats if she passes on a presidential run and if Republicans win the White House in 2016. The logic: Clinton freezing the field didn’t give prospective Democrats enough time to grow their national profile.

But Democrats caution that such blame wouldn’t be fair unless she waited until March or April of 2015 to say “no.” By contrast, a “no” by the end of the year, or early next year, would still give Democratic candidates times to build an organization and higher name ID.

White House Reacts to Obama, Clinton Policy Clash 0:42

Yet there are others who believe that all the attention on Clinton has actually benefitted Democrats who might want to take her on, even if she does run.

“I used to think she was freezing potential 2016ers out, but I believe that all of her missteps over the last few months – on her enormous personal wealth, on the border crisis, and on foreign policy – have created a bigger opening than ever for someone to challenge her,” says a Democratic strategist eyeing the emerging 2016 field.

Still, a fellow Democrat mounting a challenge to Clinton would be against all odds. Polls have shown the former first lady and secretary of state crushing all other Democratic opponents.

And that’s why, if she is going to pass on a presidential bid, Democrats want a clear signal sooner rather than later.