Specter of Hillary Clinton has other Dems wary of moving toward 2016 runs

Wearing a pin in the shape of Africa, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton finishes her speech at the University of the Western Cape about U.S.-South Africa partnership, Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012, in Cape Town, South Africa. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

Wearing a pin in the shape of Africa, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton finishes her speech at the University of the Western Cape about U.S.-South Africa partnership, Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012, in Cape Town, South Africa. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

The specter of Hillary Clinton isn’t just scaring other potential Democratic candidates from making formal moves to run in 2016, it’s scaring them from even pretending to.

Candidates from both parties had been going to Iowa and New Hampshire earlier and earlier each successive presidential cycle. By August in 2005, according to data compiled by George Washington University, six Democrats considering 2008 presidential runs had already visited the Hawkeye State, as had six Republicans. Five Democratic candidates had come to New Hampshire, along with nine Republicans.

Now, three years before the next election without an incumbent, if you live in one of the two states that vote first, it’s easy to meet a presidential candidate, as long as you are a Republican.

Five potential GOP candidates have already visited Iowa since November’s election, staring with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s visit there on Nov. 17, less than two weeks after the election. In contrast, no Democrat has held an event in Iowa, while New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s appearance at June fundraiser in New Hampshire was the sole appearance by a Democrat in that state.

After Election Day, the conventional wisdom in Washington was that Clinton would largely “freeze” the Democratic presidential process, as potential candidates like Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, tried to determine their next steps while peering closely at the former secretary of state.

But in reality, Clinton allies are making aggressive moves to further strengthen her standing, while any potential rivals are falling further behind. Without saying a word publicly about whether she will run in 2016, Hilary Clinton is racking up endorsements from key political figures, commitments from party donors, praise from people like Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.)  who were critical of the Clintons in 2008, and the support of key ex-Obama aides. And her rivals are doing little to position themselves if Clinton were to run but falter, as she did in 2007 and 2008.

“I don’t know of anybody who has had a direct conversation with a potential Democratic candidate about 2016,” said veteran New Hampshire Democratic political operative Jim Demers, who recalled a meeting he had with John Edwards eight years ago, almost three years before the primary.

Craig Robinson, the former Republican Party political director in Iowa, said,  “the Republicans are coming here to kick the tires a lot more than the Democrats.”

Clinton was considered a strong favorite in the run-up to 2008 as well, but other Democrats back then were not cowed by her presence. In 2005 and 2006, figures like Joe Biden and Evan Bayh visited the early states frequently, in part because of a perception that Democrats, desperate to win the White House after George W. Bush’s two victories, might rally around a moderate, white male who seemed more electable than Clinton. Edwards was running both as on the electability and as heir apparent among Democrats because of his service as the vice-presidential nominee in 2004. And a gang of liberal activists, wary of Clinton’s centrism, were looking for a candidate to coalesce around, eventually pushing Obama to run.

Edwards in particular showed no hesitance back then, and his aggressive approach to Iowa could have served as a model for a potential Clinton rival in 2016. He visited Iowa four times in 2005, kept cultivating activists in the years after and eventually finished ahead of Clinton in Iowa in caucuses, helping hand the former First Lady a third place defeat she never recovered from.

But Clinton’s approval rating is much higher now, vastly increasing the fear factor on the part of her fellow Democrats. One Clinton adviser said he had been directly asked by an aide to one of the other potential 2016 candidates for his advice on how to raise the prospective candidate’s profile and reach out to potential supporters in Iowa and New Hampshire.  Aides to one candidate don’t traditionally give advice to aides to others. But the Clinton aide was assured this was not a conflict of interest; the other candidate would absolutely not run if the former secretary of state does.

Aides to Vice President Biden speak privately about their doubts he would wage a campaign against Clinton. An aide to another candidate who is considering a potential run if Clinton does not run said, “any candidate who would be viable in a world without Hillary Clinton is not going to run against her.”

“If she’s out and it’s just Biden, game on,” the aide said, arguing other Democrats would challenge the vice president.

To be sure, prospective candidates are making moves. Biden and O’Malley both held events around the inauguration to meet activists from the early states and potential donors. Biden in particular has given interviews to Rolling Stone and other media outlets, suggesting he could consider a presidential campaign. O”Malley, at a National Governors Association meeting this weekend, discussed with reporters how he is actively considering a candidacy.

Biden is expected to appear at a fundraiser in Maine for New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan in August, and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, another potential candidate in a field without Clinton, will speak at a Democratic dinner in Iowa on August 16.

But the wariness of other candidates is creating the potential for Clinton to clear the field in a way that hasn’t been done since Al Gore and George W. Bush in the run-up to the 2000 elections. Even then, they eventually faced strong challengers: John McCain won several GOP primaries, and Bill Bradley was up in the polls in New Hampshire for a time.

And it’s a marked contrast from what is happening on the Republican side. GOP Sen. Texas Ted Cruz, who only entered the Senate in January, is already holding one-on-one meetings with key activists in Iowa.

Democrats in the early states say that unless a candidate has Obama-like star power, they need to start wooing key activists as soon as possible if they want to have a chance against Clinton, who has already met all of these activists from her previous run and is perhaps the most popular politician in America right now.

“That personal contact matters,” said Demers.

Perry Bacon Jr. is the politics editor at theGrio. Follow him on Twitter at @perrybaconjr or e-mail him at perry.bacon@nbcuni.com