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Last time, Iowa was the beginning of the end for Hillary Clinton.
Clinton’s third-place finish in the 2008 Iowa caucuses paved the way for her ultimate defeat by Barack Obama, whose tenacious organizing in the state earned him the victory he needed to solidify his status as an inspirational — and viable — Democratic standard-bearer.
Now, she’s returning to the state that plagued her nearly eight years ago to again make her case to Democrats and to the country that she’s the candidate who can best represent the famously meticulous voters of Iowa.
The Clinton campaign faced an array of problems in the Hawkeye State in 2008, including skepticism from war-weary Iowa Democrats who saw her vote to authorize the Iraq War as disqualifying.
Because Democratic candidates had ceded the state to local favorite Sen. Tom Harkin in 1992, Bill Clinton had built virtually no infrastructure there for his wife to piggyback upon. And her Iowa message hit an early snag in 2007 due to a leaked memo from deputy campaign manager Mike Henry, who suggested skipping Iowa outright in favor of investing more resources into the February 5th Super Tuesday contests. (The campaign immediately said it had already rejected Henry’s idea, but some Democrats in Iowa chafed at his suggestion that their first-in-the-nation status was becoming a thing of the past.)
Bret Nilles, now the chairman of the Linn County Democrats and a Hillary Clinton backer in 2008, said that the Clinton team's biggest problem was failing to recognize the competition.
"The campaign staff came in thinking that they knew Iowa and knew how to get people to the caucuses. But they underestimated how effective Sen. Obama's campaign was at the time," he said.
Mark Daley, Clinton's communications director in the state in 2008, said that Clinton's near-universal name recognition and high interest from the press sometimes made it more difficult for her to connect with Iowa voters.
“Iowans are used to be catered to by candidates. Candidates have slept in their guest bedrooms and on their couches," he said. "When you show up and you are already a household name, you face challenges unlike anyone before you."
"You can't get in there and do living room meetings when you have 35 reporters with you," he added.
The contrast between Clinton’s crowded, frenzied campaign performances in the state and the more accessible events held by her rivals also exacerbated her team’s structural problems.
Carrie Giddins, who served as the communications director for the Iowa Democratic Party in 2008, says that Clinton was out-organized in 2008 by both the campaigns of Obama and John Edwards, who also benefited from smaller press entourages early in the campaign.
“The relationships that those campaigns were building on the ground meant that when their candidate landed, it wasn’t a circus, it was a sit-down,” she said. “It was much more intimate. And it was much easier to walk into any other event than it was to go see Hillary.”
Nilles said that Clinton's team was also outmatched in behind-the-scenes courting of influencers. He received personal calls from Obama on his home phone, and a friend hosted a BBQ with the Illinois senator. "Sure, we had a chance to meet with Hillary, but it wasn't the same personal interaction," he said.
That’s a perception that Clinton is meticulously trying to avoid this time. Her focus, aides say, will be on small events — with a more strictly limited press presence — rather than the sweeping speeches she gave in 2008.
Outside of the mechanics of day-to-day campaigning, Clinton also faced perceptions in 2008 that she was a candidate of the past — something she’ll have to try to shake with Iowa Democrats this time.
Exit polls from 2008 showed that 51 percent of Democratic caucus-goers said that the most important quality they sought in a candidate was the ability to bring about change. Obama, a first-term African-American senator without a long political pedigree, captured the majority of those voters, while Clinton won just 19 percent of them.
This cycle, Clinton likely won’t have an opponent with Obama’s latent political skill and fundraising apparatus, but she’ll still face some rivals — like Maryland’s Martin O’Malley or Virginia’s Jim Webb — who will paint themselves as alternatives standing in the way of a Clinton “coronation.”
And that’s a good thing, many Iowans say. In a new Bloomberg poll, 72 percent of Democrats and independents in the state said it would be “a good thing” if Clinton faced serious competition for the nomination. (A March NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that about four-in-ten Democratic primary voters nationwide think the party should find a challenger to Clinton, while 61 percent say they're not concerned about whether she faces opposition or not.)
Clinton allies say that she’s been mischaracterized as inaccessible to regular voters and that Iowans’ desire for neighborly dialogue with candidates actually plays to her strengths.
And with a campaign that’s learned from painful mistakes in the past, this could be a chance for redemption in a place that’s always loved great political narratives.
“In Iowa, Hillary has the chance to prove that 2008 was not her year because of things that went wrong, not because of who she is,” Giddins said.