Reporters Outnumber Voters as Hillary Clinton Opens Campaign in Iowa

Hillary Clinton hits economic themes in her first meetings with Iowans.

MONTICELLO, Iowa—Hillary Clinton may have been speaking to just 22 people here at her Iowa kickoff event, but the now-official 2016 candidate was looking far beyond the voters in the room when she outlined in the clearest terms yet the rationale for her campaign.

"A lot of people in the last few days have asked me, 'Why do you want to do this?' and 'What motivates you?'" Clinton said at the event. "And I've thought a lot about it, and I guess the short answer is, I've been fighting for children and families my entire life. ... I want to be the champion who goes to bat for Americans."

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Clinton named four areas of focus for her campaign: building the economy up "tomorrow, not yesterday," strengthening families and communities, fixing the country's "dysfunctional political system"—including getting "unaccountable" money out of the system—and protecting Americans from external threats.

It was her first time in Iowa since visiting the state during the 2014 midterm elections—and her first as a candidate since January 2008 on the eve of the Iowa caucuses. And the small, by-invitation-only format reflected her team's explicit focus on more-intimate meetings with voters as Clinton tries for a second time to win the Democratic nomination.

Gone are the soaring speeches and the big rally crowds, swapped out for roundtable discussions and meet-and-greets with local activists.

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But the dozens of reporters both in the room and chasing after her van outside were a reminder of just how difficult it will be for one of the most recognizable public figures in the world to hold events that truly feel intimate.

On Tuesday, for example, Clinton was seated at a table with just seven other people for the discussion, with an audience of another 15. But those Iowans were far outnumbered by the dozens of reporters who were bunched together behind a thin yellow rope at the back of the room.

Indeed, despite some limits on the number of press credentials handed out by Clinton's Iowa team—each outlet had one person in the room, and national television and photography was pooled—it still was a big group. Bigger yet was the press crowd outside, where reporters who weren't admitted to the event chased Clinton's van when it first pulled up here, contributing to the feeling of a media circus surrounding the former secretary of State's Iowa launch.

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Clinton joked about the horde of reporters as the event opened, telling the seven roundtable participants: "Well, thank you for having me here—and a few of my friends."

Certainly, keeping things small was always going to be a challenge, and Clinton's aides have acknowledged the difficulty of making events with her feel intimate when she comes with such a huge entourage. Still, they're trying: Tuesday's launch was a far cry from her 2007 Iowa kickoff, when she gave a speech to 1,400 people in a high school gymnasium in Des Moines.

"That's not her greatest strength, a rally or a setting like that," said Kurt Meyer, chair of the Tri-County Democratic Party. "So I think they know exactly what they're doing."

Sitting at a small table in a garage in Monticello where local community college students take their "automotive technology" class, Clinton spoke for a few minutes, then asked questions of each of the roundtable participants on education. One young man at the roundtable, Andrew Lorimer, is a student who will attend the Naval Academy next fall. Another, Ellen Schlarmann, explained how as a high school senior she's already earning enough credit to cover the first two years of college.

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Clinton said "there's something deeply wrong" about students and their families needing to go into debt to finance a college education, noting that she supports President Obama's proposal to make community college free.

She also denounced the Republican critics of the Common Core educational standards, saying that the argument about it is "really painful.

"The Common Core started off as a bipartisan effort—it was actually nonpartisan," she said.

Clinton's top Iowa aides are already in place, and field organizers are beginning their work across the state. Campaign manager Robby Mook and second-in-command Marlon Marshall were in town for a series of meetings with activists and party leaders earlier in April, and many local and county-level activists said they received calls from Des Moines-based campaign staffers on Sunday asking what they thought of the announcement video.

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"What we are trying to do with this first trip to Iowa is to make it very clear that it isn't about her, it isn't about us—this is about Iowans," one aide said on a call with reporters. "We understand that we have to earn this; we understand that this is a long process that we're going to take very seriously with a great deal of humility."

Still, some Iowa Democrats suggested that these small venues won't satisfy the myriad supporters here who are accustomed to getting face time with their presidential candidates.

"We just want a glimpse," said Linda Nelson, chair of the Pottawattamie County Democratic Party. "I think they're going to have to create more events or larger events. It is important to ... have some small groups so you can have a real conversation rather than just speak from a podium and tell them what's in your head. ... But people are anxious. They want to see Mrs. Clinton and they want to hear what she has to say."