WASHINGTON, Apr 13 – Hillary Clinton embarked on an extraordinary campaign road trip Sunday after launching her bid to become the first woman to win the White House with a pledge to champion “everyday Americans.”
With an eye to putting behind her the jet-set image of a former first lady, secretary of state and global charity director, Clinton boarded a simple minivan to head from New York to Iowa.
A few hours into the surprise 1,000 mile (1,600 kilometer) trip, the 67-year-old Democrat tweeted a picture of herself meeting a family of ordinary voters at a Pennsylvania gas station.
“When Hillary first told us that she was ready to hit the road for Iowa, we looked at her and said: ‘Seriously?’ And she said: ‘Seriously’,” Hillary’s senior aide Huma Abedin said.
“This was her idea, and she has been really excited about it. We’ve been driving for a good part of today,” she added, in a conference call from the road for supporters and reporters.
Long assumed to be the frontrunner for her Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, Clinton’s formal entry into the race unleashes her fundraising machine and social media operation.
She put an end to the pantomime surrounding the worst kept secret in US politics by posting an ad on her new Facebook page and website and sending links to her three million Twitter followers.
“I’m running for president,” a beaming Clinton said in a slickly produced video that quickly went viral. “Everyday Americans need a champion, and I want to be that champion.”
The two-minute clip featured upbeat middle-class families from a variety of backgrounds sharing their aspirations.
Her campaign said Clinton will spend the next six to eight weeks building a grassroots organization and “engaging directly with voters.”
Her first major rally and the speech that kicks off her campaign is not expected until May, but Clinton’s van trip will take her to meet small groups of voters in Iowa.
“Road trip! Loaded the van & set off for IA. Met a great family when we stopped this afternoon. Many more to come. -H,” she tweeted.
In Iowa, the first state to vote in an election year, Clinton will talk “about how to make the economy work so everyday Americans and their families can actually get ahead and stay ahead.”
“We can’t take anything for granted, and we’ll have to fight really hard for every single vote, and that obviously starts in the primaries,” said campaign manager Robby Mook.
“Hillary got into this race to fight for everyday Americans”
The announcement will trigger a donation deluge from supporters who have long waited for her to officially enter the race.
But it also triggered a Republican response. The Republican National Committee aid Clinton “has left a trail of secrecy, scandal and failed policies that can’t be erased from voters’ minds.”
“We must do better than Hillary,” tweeted former Florida governor Jeb Bush, foreshadowing the intense back-and-forth expected to play out on social media in the run up to the November 2016 election.
– Humble beginning –
Clinton’s campaign-in-waiting has quietly organized for months, bringing on key staffers and advisors, plotting outreach operations and strategizing.
On Saturday, she earned praise from US President Barack Obama, who defeated her in a hard fought Democratic primary seven years ago, but who now says she would make “an excellent president.”
But experts warn she will have to tread a fine line in how closely she aligns herself with the incumbent, whose approval ratings have lingered below 50 percent for two years.
The soft rollout — a folksy but upbeat video, low-key small gatherings with heartland voters — marks a deviation from the Clinton Inc. juggernaut that ultimately failed in 2008.
The one-time senator and wife of former president Bill Clinton leads opinion polls among Democrats, some 60 percent of whom say they would vote for her in the primaries, according to website RealClearPolitics.
A humble approach may ease doubts about Clinton raised in recent weeks, after it was revealed she used a private email account while secretary of state from 2009 to 2013 and that her family’s charitable foundation accepted millions of dollars from foreign governments.
Shortly after the campaign launch, Clinton left the board of the family foundation led by her husband.
But she will have to brace for uncomfortable questions from voters about not just the policy issues but the various scandals in the Clintons’ past.
– ‘Arrogance of power’ –
Clinton, who has been in America’s political spotlight for a quarter-century, has endured heavy criticism from Republicans, and launching her campaign gives her a platform to counter their punches.
Senator Rand Paul, who announced last week he is running for president, released what is perhaps the first attack ad of the 2016 cycle, saying Clinton “represents the worst of the Washington machine: the arrogance of power, corruption and coverup, conflicts of interest and failed leadership with tragic consequences.”
Conservative Senator Ted Cruz made a splashy presidential campaign launch last month, while fellow Senate Republican Marco Rubio is scheduled to make his own all-but-certain campaign declaration Monday.
Clinton, who has highlighted her status as a new grandmother, leads against her GOP rivals in nearly all polls, but famed political prognosticator Nate Silver called the 2016 election a “tossup.”