Hillary Clinton heads for small-town Iowa to put human touch on 2016 bid

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Hillary Clinton heads for small-town Iowa to put human touch on 2016 bid” was written by Paul Lewis in Des Moines and Lauren Gambino in New York, for The Guardian on Monday 13th April 2015 21.16 UTC

Hillary Clinton was scheduled to arrive in the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa on Tuesday, after launching her presidential campaign with a 1,000-mile road trip intended to counter her reputation as a distant and often inaccessible candidate.

The Democratic frontrunner departed from her home in Chappaqua, New York, in a three-vehicle convoy on Sunday, around the time her campaign was officially launched on social media.

The move was totally unexpected. But it was carefully orchestrated political stagecraft from campaign operatives trying to recast Clinton – the most famous woman in American politics and a polarising figure on both left and right – for the 2016 presidential contest.

She will arrive on Tuesday in the small rural town of Monticello, in Iowa, the first state to choose its Democratic and Republican nominees in January 2016, and the place where her presidential ambitions crumbled seven years ago after finishing third behind Barack Obama and John Edwards.

Clinton’s defeat in Iowa in 2008 was largely attributed to her inability to connect with Iowa’s caucus-goers. Critics said she was aloof, detached and presumptuous, and later criticised her for conducting a tour of the state in a chartered helicopter.

This time, she will arrive in a van the former secretary of state has, aides said, nicknamed “Scooby”.

Her tour of Iowa, overseen by veteran Democratic operative Matt Paul, will attempt to put the former first lady in a series of intimate, even one-on-one, settings with locals in living rooms and coffee shops.

“You’re going to see Hillary interact in much smaller settings than people might expect,” one senior campaign official said on Monday. “We understand that we have to earn this.”

Clinton, the official added, was taking the Iowa campaign “very seriously, with a great deal of humility”.

The reality is that Clinton has already lapped the four men who say they are officially exploring the possibility of a challenge – and already looks destined to win the Iowa caucus and Democratic nomination.

The former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, who has spent more time than any other Democrat in Iowa in recent months – and is viewed by some as Clinton’s most likely adversary for the nomination – has a current polling average in the state of 0.3%. In an email to supporters on Monday, O’Malley he would “look forward to the road ahead”.

Another Clinton campaign aide, however, acknowledged that enabling authentic, personal encounters in Iowa, with the world’s media in tow, would be “a challenge”.

“We’ve got to be creative about this,” the aide said.

Clinton’s decision to drive rather than fly to Iowa, a highly unusual move for a presidential candidate – and one that does not come without risks – is being spun by her campaign as an idea that Clinton casually came up with herself.

“When Hillary first told us that she was ready to hit the road for Iowa, we literally looked at her and said, ‘Seriously?’ And she said, ‘Seriously,’” her aide, Huma Abedin, told Clinton supporters in a conference call on Sunday night heard by the Guardian. “This was her idea.”

Abedin, one of two aides and a clutch of secret service personnel travelling with the former secretary of state, said Clinton met a family from Michigan when they stopped at a gas station in Pennsylvania.

Earlier, Clinton had tweeted a picture of her standing next to a family: “Road trip! Loaded the van & set off for IA. Met a great family when we stopped this afternoon. Many more to come.”

“I think it’s safe to say she surprised quite a few people who had just happened to stop for gas at the same time she did,” Abedin said.

On Monday afternoon, Clinton stopped for lunch at a Chipotle Mexican Grill in Maumee, Ohio.

“She was grabbing lunch and ate for 45 minutes in the restaurant,” manager Charles Wright told the Guardian, adding that few customers even noticed the former secretary of state was eating a chicken bowl with “a friend of hers” – apparently Abedin.

“We had a couple of customers taking pictures of her and didn’t know anything until after the fact,” Wright said. “She definitely got our famous guacamole.”

The campaign leaked other snippets intended to humanise the trip, including that the former first lady had nicknamed the van “Scooby” because it resembles the ‘Mystery Machine’ vehicle featured in the Scooby-Doo series.

The road trip chimes with a low-key campaign launch on Sunday, in which Clinton eschewed the traditional campaign rally for an online announcement based around a sleekly produced video.

Clinton only appeared toward the end of the video, which focused on regular American voters. “This is not about Hillary,” the campaign official said. “It is about everyday Americans.”

That, of course, is only partly true. The folksy narrative is very much about tweaking perceptions of Clinton, who has been at the top of the political elite, as first lady, New York senator and secretary of state, for more than two decades.

There is also a risk that the instantly recognisable Clinton will struggle with the kind of spontaneous voter interactions her campaign hopes the road trip will enable.

The world’s media will try to catch up with Clinton as she travels through Indiana and Illinois. Still more advisers have reportedly confessed there is a chance of a media circus, with helicopters hovering overhead.

But Clinton’s current location, and her planned route, have so far remained a secret.

She is scheduled to arrive at a rural community college in Monticello, a town of around 4,000, shortly after 1pm local time on Tuesday.

A senior campaign official said on Monday he spoke to Clinton on Sunday night and described her mood as “excited, energized and anxious to being this personal, direct conversation with Iowans”.

On Wednesday, she will meet local small-business owners and employees in a suburb of Des Moines.

  • Additional reporting by Ben Jacobs in Washington

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