Aug. 8, 2013 -- Friday morning, as Washington slumbers through recess and public attention even in Iowa is far from presidential politics, a group of Democratic activists and office-holders will gather in Des Moines to discuss a topic very much on their minds – and now on their agenda: "Madam President."
Organizers aren't naming this hypothetical president. But they don't have to, of course.
Meet the shadow campaign for Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Just beneath the surface, and without evidence of direct involvement by the Clintons themselves, a Clinton machine is whirring to life. A series of self-started, independent ventures are adding up to a sweeping effort to unite all levels of the Democratic establishment behind a candidacy that backers hope and trust they'll have a chance to support.
"We want to make sure we're ready for her if she decides to run," said Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY's List, which is running the "Madam President" event in Iowa and has similar events planned for New Hampshire and Nevada in the months to come. "We want to be prepared to do all we can to break through that glass ceiling."
Several people close to the Clinton camp insist there is no puppet-master coordinating political efforts for the former secretary of state. That means that while some of what's being done is for Clinton's benefit, it's less clear that it's being done on her behalf.
But a series of prominent Democrats aligned with the Clintons – Harold Ickes, James Carville, Ann Lewis, Cheryl Mills, and Craig Smith among them – are acting as facilitators, channeling friends and allies toward entities that are working for a possible candidacy, according to numerous Democrats in and around the Clinton orbit.
Clinton herself is doing little publicly or privately to tip her hand about 2016. Associates say she's mostly focused on speaking engagements and writing a memoir that will publish next year. Little news emanates from a tiny "transition office" she set up in Washington to ease her out of the State Department and on to new ventures; that office declined to comment on this topic.
Yet Clinton is not discouraging efforts to put outside campaign pieces in place early, according to those working on behalf of her possible candidacy. Her occasional public comments on the topic reinforce the notion that she's comfortable with what's going on.
"Let me say this, hypothetically speaking, I really do hope that we have a woman president in my lifetime," Clinton said at a speaking engagement in Toronto in June.
The machinations have had the effect of essentially freezing out the rest of the 2016 Democratic field. Possible Republican candidates are popping up in Iowa and New Hampshire, but Democrats are largely avoiding the early-voting states for now.
Vice President Joe Biden and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley have both expressed interest in 2016. But neither is putting into place – or having put into place on his behalf – anything approaching the networks and infrastructure that are gelling for Clinton. Any such efforts would be implicitly discouraged by what's going on around Clinton, since she's viewed as the prohibitive frontrunner.
The organizations supporting Clinton in this pre-campaign period – EMILY's List, the already-established American Bridge PAC, and the newcomer Ready for Hillary PAC, just for starters – are in part a reflection of the enormity of the Clinton and ex-Clinton operations, plus the fact that some former Obama campaign operatives are eager to work on another winning campaign.
What's being built is something well short of a campaign-in-waiting. Clinton herself would surely create her own operation from scratch if she decides to run.
But if the ventures deliver as promised, they would provide Clinton with the raw material with which to build a campaign. She would have access to polling, e-mail lists, a grassroots network, mid-level operatives, and high-dollar donors all lined up if and when she's as ready as her supporters are.
"If she decides to run, all these pieces are going to fall into place very, very quickly," said Tad Devine, a veteran Democratic strategist who isn't involved in the emerging pro-Clinton efforts. "Her position is almost as good as an incumbent president seeking reelection, and in some cases better."
The efforts hold substantial risks, of both overexposure and creating a sense of inevitability that could backfire. Some Clinton campaign veterans are wary of seeing the above-politics image she sought to build as secretary of state get tarnished this far out from a presidential year.
"It puts her in the line of fire," one former campaign aide said of efforts to build up a possible candidacy now. "It's going to feel like a very long presidential campaign."
But the buzz around Clinton has undeniably begun. Take the EMILY's List "Madam President" project – a long-term effort to elect a female president that's broader than support for one candidate in one election.
Schriock insists that her group is focused as much about getting a woman elected president in 2020 or 2024, if 2016 doesn't work out. The buzz around Clinton, though, is helping the group add names and raise money – things a Clinton candidacy would benefit from if she decides to run.
The group has made clear that Hillary Clinton will get the full benefit of its muscle in 2016, if Clinton says the word, to the extent allowable under campaign-finance law. That includes the results of a major research project, involving focus groups and polling, that would help Clinton navigate obstacles unique to a woman seeking to become president, Schriock said.
Friday's event in Iowa will also feature Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. That name has special resonance in pro-Clinton circles: McCaskill famously endorsed President Obama in 2008 but is now actively raising money for the Ready for Hillary PAC, the new outside group formed to channel grassroots enthusiasm for a Clinton run. (McCaskill also let it be known that when she endorsed the notion of Clinton '16 recently, she got a thank-you call from Clinton herself.)
Harold Ickes, a longtime Clinton hand who is advising and helping raise money for the PAC, said the early efforts are designed to show both outsiders and insiders that there's real enthusiasm for another Clinton candidacy. Among their target audience: Hillary Clinton herself.
"It will show that there is what we think is very broad and deep support for Hillary, and it will encourage others to come forward and register their support for Hillary," Ickes said. "More important, it is to show Hillary that there is broad and deep support. She knows how ephemeral polls can be, and how ephemeral public support can be."
"Hopefully she will conclude that she should run for president," added Ickes, who stressed that he has no direct knowledge of Clinton's 2016 plans.
The PAC has injected some Obama organizational blood into Clinton land. It has hired a firm run by two former high-ranking Obama aides, Mitch Stewart and Jeremy Bird, who are already strategizing voter-registration and youth engagement strategies for Clinton in advance of 2016.
Hires like those are helping spread the word among Democrats that a Clinton campaign is a very real possibility – and a great destination for ambitious, talented operatives.
"She would have her absolute pick of the best talent in the country, were she to run," said Stewart, who ran the Obama 2012 battleground-state operation. "It's never too early to start."
Clinton insiders have encouraged big Democratic donors to get involved through the PAC. Twenty of President Obama's "bundlers" – his top campaign fundraisers – are among the 10,000-plus donors to Ready for Hillary, according to an ABC analysis of Federal Election Commission reports.
Some of those same donors are among the backers of the American Bridge PAC, which came to prominence last year with harsh ads opposing Mitt Romney. With the support of James Carville, the group recently launched its "Correct the Record" project, with an explicit promise to defend Clinton against GOP attacks.
If Clinton is uniting Democrats early, she's certainly uniting Republicans, even during a time of uncommon discord inside the GOP. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus is capitalizing on those strong anti-Clinton sentiments with a warning that TV outlets that air Clinton documentaries won't have RNC cooperation in presidential debates that are still two-plus years away.
A new conservative group, America Rising, has already launched a Website, StopHillary2016.org, to raise money for efforts to publicize negative stories about her. The group, founded by former Romney campaign aides, is pushing out regular opposition research, on areas including her time as secretary of state and her family business ties.
"It's crucial that we begin now making the case against Hillary and building the infrastructure necessary to go head-to-head with the Clinton machine in 2016," said Tim Miller, executive director of America Rising PAC.
Even while pieces of a future Clinton operation are put in place, those involved in the efforts say they realize the potential pitfalls, particularly around building an aura of inevitability that would leave her primed for a takedown. They remember intimately, of course, how the strategy of lining up boldfaced Democratic names worked out in 2008, and say they are intent on learning from their mistakes.
Craig T. Smith, a former Clinton White House aide whose association with the Clintons dates back to the state house in Arkansas, said the focus is on building pieces that a future campaign can build on. A full-fledged operation is not the goal for the intermediate future, he said.
"We're not buying TV ads. We're not doing policy development. We're not setting up offices across the country," said Smith, who is advising the Ready for Hillary PAC. "That's not what we do. We're about building a list."
For all the positive Clinton buzz, if members of either party forgot the drama that often surrounds the Clintons, this year's two hottest political contests are serving as regular reminders.
In New York City's mayoral race, veteran Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin is standing by her husband, Anthony Weiner, despite a series of sex scandals. The Clintons are publicly staying out of the race, while expressing support through intermediaries for Abedin and not Weiner.
In Virginia, longtime Bill Clinton friend Terry McAuliffe is seeking the governor's office, in a bruising race where McAuliffe's business venture with one of Hillary Clinton's brothers has become a campaign issue. The Clintons are solidly behind McAuliffe, though some in their circle have bristled at suggestions that the race is a road-test for 2016, as if the Clintons needed to use a statewide campaign as a test drive.
Schriock, of EMILY's List, said Clinton supporters are cognizant of the obstacles her candidacy would face. Her efforts, she said, are focused on clearing those away, either for Clinton or anyone among the next crop of Democratic women who are seeking to follow her footsteps.
"The United States has never actually elected a woman to the White House," she said. "She's not the only woman who can do this. She is by far the best Democrat to take this on in 2016. We certainly hope she decides to run, but it's her personal decision."
Devine said the Clinton camp is savvy to try to own and channel early 2016 stirrings.
"All the mojo is sort of there," he said. "It's very smart. If they leave the space unoccupied, others would move toward it."