SAN JOSE -- The question follows Hillary Clinton wherever she goes, shadowing her more doggedly than her Secret Service retinue, and yet it's almost certainly the wrong question for this moment. When she takes the stage at San Jose State University's Event Center on Thursday evening, will she or won't she run for president again in 2016 is what supporters want to know. After all, Election Day 2016 is just 942 days away, the merest blink of an eye in the current perpetual campaign cycle.
But the question will likely remain the elephant in the room because the man conducting Clinton's Q&A -- Santa Clara County Assessor Larry Stone, a longtime friend of Bill Clinton's -- knows she wouldn't answer, and is already sure what she would say if she did blurt out her plans. "Of course she's going to run," Stone says. "There shouldn't be any doubt. But she's not going to make the announcement at San Jose State."
With a recent Zogby poll indicating Clinton would clobber potential Republican contenders such as Jeb Bush, Sen. Rand Paul and Gov. Chris Christie by a range of 18 to 23 points, and no plausible Democratic challengers in sight, the better question would be: Can anything derail Hillary Clinton's inevitability?
It happened once before, when Barack Obama used a superior organization to upend her "heir apparent" status in 2008.
Hoping to appeal to an audience that's expected to skew heavily female, Stone wants to keep the focus of his questions mostly personal, so her supporters get better acquainted with the former first lady of the United States, U.S. Senator and Secretary of State. But not too personal. "I'm not going to say, 'Well, if you're president, who are you going to put in charge of the interns?' " Stone joked, alluding to Bill Clinton's canoodling with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. "That would be a one-question interview."
At a time of almost unparalleled crankypants politics in Washington, D.C., a surprising consensus has formed around the notion that Hillary is a lock to win the Democratic Party's nomination, and that she's already running. She made two appearances before potential donor groups Tuesday in San Francisco, gave another speech that night in Portland, and will speak in Las Vegas on Thursday before appearing in San Jose. "She doesn't go anywhere now without there being a 2016 context to it," says Seth Bringman, communications director for the political action committee Ready For Hillary, which so far has collected more than $400,000 selling T-shirts and coffee mugs bearing her mug and the PAC's logo.
Calling this Clinton's "pre-campaign ground campaign," Melissa Michelson, professor of political science at Menlo College, believes the reported $200,000 speaking fees she's been collecting -- and the connections she makes with groups like trial lawyers at the American Bar Association convention in San Francisco -- reflect the undeclared candidate's determination not to run out of money this time.
"If she hadn't run short on funds in 2008, it might have been her turn then," Michelson says. "She mismanaged her funds, but it's less likely that her campaign will be mismanaged this time, and less likely that a scandal will emerge to derail her. It's kind of hard to imagine that there's some new scandal we haven't all heard about that might emerge after all these years in the public spotlight."
First-time voters in 2016 very likely weren't even born during the Lewinsky scandal, so that and other colorful episodes of the Clinton administration will be ancient history to a lot of voters. "The current image of Hillary Clinton is that of a very strong woman," Michelson says. "Not the adoring housewife who talked about baking chocolate chip cookies, and held her husband's hand after he lied to her about Monica Lewinsky. Older women who were of age when all that happened are just chomping at the bit to vote for a woman" to be president.
During this otherwise quiet period in the presumptive nominee's long march back to the White House, her only known opposition from within her party are Jeff Boss, a conspiracy theorist from New Jersey, and Robby Wells, the former head football coach at Savannah State University. But other candidates are likely, and Stone hopes for a primary challenge from either Vice President Joe Biden or Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley to stave off the lassitude of her last campaign. "If either one of them decided to run," he says, "they wouldn't do what the Republicans did in 2012, which is carve each other up."
In addition to the formidable name-recognition she would bring to a presidential bid, Clinton would have the likely advantage of facing any Republican challenger from behind the "blue wall" -- a phalanx of 18 states, and the District of Columbia, that have voted Democratic in at least six consecutive elections. If form holds in 2016, that picket line of blue states would give Clinton, or any Democratic nominee, 242 of the 270 votes needed in the Electoral College to win the White House.
In San Jose, Clinton will face a picket line of a different sort. A group calling itself Gilroy-Morgan Hill Patriots plans to protest her appearance here Thursday. They would like Clinton, who was then Secretary of State, to be held accountable for the 2012 fiasco at Benghazi, when U.S. ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in a raid on the embassy compound. "This is not the type of person we want leading anything," the group says in a statement, "let alone our country. Our message to Hillary Clinton is simple: we don't want you, please go away."
For at least the next 942 days, that doesn't seem likely.
Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004. Follow him at twitter.com/BruceNewmanTwit