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Can Anyone Really Challenge Hillary Clinton?

Some Democrats in Iowa and nationally want a very competitive Democratic primary. For now, that looks unlikely.

INDIANAOLA, Iowa- Some Democrats in Iowa and nationally want a very competitive Democratic primary, not one where Hillary Clinton has the overwhelming advantage. For now, that looks unlikely.

With her weekend trip to this early primary state, the ex-secretary of state is sounding more and more like a candidate. And much of the party’s apparatus is already rallying around her while also sending an unsubtle signal to Vice-President Biden and other potential contenders that it’s Clinton’s turn.

At least 60 congressional Democrats have already said they would back Clinton if she ran, according to a tabulation by The Hill newspaper. Top officials in early primary states, like Attorney General Tom Miller of Iowa, who endorsed John Kerry in 2004 then Obama four years later, say they are strongly leaning towards supporting Clinton now.

“There are many more chapters to be written in the amazing life of Hillary Clinton,” Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin said at his annual steak fry on Sunday here, all but endorsing Clinton for president.

Key Democratic operatives are likely to join Clinton as well. Democrats say Jack Sullivan, who was a top Clinton aide in 2008 and at the State Department before serving as Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, is expected to work with Clinton, not Biden, in a 2016 campaign. Jeremy Bird, who was the national field director of Obama’s 2012 campaign and is one of the party’s smartest strategists in mobilizing voters, is already aligned with the group “Ready for Hillary.”

Biden, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and ex-Virginia senator Jim Webb are all taking steps towards running in 2016. But the key question is whether they can amass the staff, political support and fundraising to wage a true contest against Clinton, as Obama did in 2008, or will face insurmountable odds from the start, as Biden did in his own campaign six years ago.

Tom Hockensmith, a county supervisor in Des Moines who backed Obama in 2008, said in an interview he wasn’t sure who he supported in 2016, adding, “I don’t know enough about any of the candidates.” But he wasn’t sure he would ultimately have much of a choice.

“I think she’s going to be the candidate,” he said of Clinton.

In 2006, Obama received a strong reception from Iowans at the annual steak fry, encouraging him to run for president. A few months later, as he launched his campaign, he was able to recruit some of the top operatives in the Democratic Party, match Clinton in fundraising and get endorsements from key figures like Miller.

That type of well-funded opposition to Clinton may harder to mobilize now.

Eight years after Obama starred there, the steak fry was essentially a “Hillary for President” rally on Sunday. People from not only across Iowa, but even from nearby Kansas came to cheer her on. Some brought buttons or stickers from Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign.

Longtime Clinton aides, like Greg Hale, who traveled with Hillary Clinton throughout the 2008 campaign, were in Iowa this weekend to advise her, in a sign the Clintons themselves took this visit to the Hawkeye State seriously.

She has another major advantage: the uniqueness of her candidacy. Clinton and Obama were both trying to make history in 2008. Now Clinton is running in a Democratic party ready to elect a female president, and the only people who are considering running against her are white males.

But she was not the only likely candidate in Iowa this weekend. Sanders held three events in the Hawkeye State, with more than 400 people crowded into the meeting room of Grace United Methodist Church to hear him on Sunday night.

“We need to pass a Medicare-for-all program,” he said to the crowd of liberals, one of a number of comments he made suggesting today’s Democratic Party is too centrist.

It’s not yet clear Sanders intends his candidacy to be mainly a forum to push his very liberal views through the television debates during the primary, as Herman Cain and other Republicans did in 2012, or if he wants to and can raise the money and build the campaign operation to truly compete with Clinton.

Even Sanders’ own supporters are doubtful he could truly challenge Clinton. Bob Morck, who came to see Sanders speak in Des Moines, said he would vote for the Vermont senator in a Democratic primary because he views Clinton as “war-hungry” and “part of the corporate structure.”

But when asked if Sanders could win, Morck, a probation officer who backed Obama in the 2008 caucuses, bluntly said “no.”

“He’s just not well-known enough,” Morck said.

Biden is coming to Iowa on Wednesday, as the vice-president continues to give hints he will consider a run. But there are real doubts that staffers and key donors in the Democratic Party would support him beyond those who aided his 2008 run, when he did not win a single primary.

O’Malley is taking some strongly liberal stands, mostly notably criticizing President Obama for being too supportive of sending migrant children to back their home countries earlier this year during the border crisis.

He is also actively talking to party donors and key strategists, and some Democrats in Iowa believe he could be a credible candidate. Webb, with his populist economic ideas and Vietnam War experience, could criticize Clinton for being too eager to wage war abroad and too allied with Wall Street at home.

But less than four months from the start of 2015, when the presidential contest starts in earnest, the politicians who could more easily challenge Clinton seem very unlikely to do so.

California Gov. Jerry Brown, who has a large fundraising base from his long political career, has said he will not run. The group “Ready for Warren” handed out tee-shirts and buttons at the Steak Fry, but Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a huge favorite of liberals and a prolific fundraiser, has repeatedly ruled out a campaign. Another popular figure among Democratic activists, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, has already said he would back Clinton if the former secretary of state runs.

To be sure, heavy front-runners can be challenged by underdogs. In 2000, Arizona Sen. John McCain won a number of key primaries despite the party’s establishment favoring George W. Bush.

But that same year, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley didn’t win a single race against then Vice-President Al Gore, who entered the primary with the kind of strong party support Clinton has this time.