Clinton's bumpy road to the White House

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Hillary Clinton’s road to the White House got off to a rocky start this week.

Though the former secretary of State repeatedly insists she hasn’t made up her mind on running, the first week of her book tour took on presidential campaign-level scrutiny, and produced some missteps that could follow her all the way to 2016.

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Two gaffes bookended Clinton’s week: Comments that she and former President Bill Cilinton were “dead broke” when they left the White House took hold of the coverage of her book tour on Monday, and a contentious exchange with NPR’s Terry Gross on gay marriage again derailed the focus of her memoir “Hard Choices” on Thursday.

The rollout drew criticism not just from Republicans, but also nonpartisan reporters that have covered her for years.

Mark Halperin, part of the reporting team that produced “Game Change,” an in-depth look at the 2008 campaign, said the one-time candidate was “very rusty.”

The book itself has also drawn criticism as being too dry or uninteresting. Halperin said he didn’t “understand writing a book of that length without a message.”

Tommy Vietor, a spokesperson for Clinton, said Clinton “enjoyed” her first week back out in the spotlight.

“The Secretary enjoyed spending this week talking about Hard Choices and working with President Obama to restore America’s leadership in the world,” he said in an email. “She’ll continue to be relaxed, candid and direct."

Her allies insist she hasn’t made up her mind about another White House bid, cautioning that viewing everything within the lens of a presidential campaign is premature.

“She’s a long way from running for president,” said Steve Elmendorf, a surrogate for her 2008 campaign. “People are not following every single utterance of this woman in these press interviews.”

Premature or not, however, today’s constant campaign means she’ll be under heavy scrutiny from now until Election Day 2016, regardless of when she makes an official announcement. 

The stakes in this book tour are high. A Gallup poll out this week showed the former first lady at her lowest popularity level since August of 2008, with just 54 percent of Americans viewing her favorably.

Some critics have questioned whether being out of the game for so long has made her, as Halperin put it, “rusty,” or unprepared for the rigors of a contemporary campaign. 

Ryan Williams, a former spokesman for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid, noted that with social media, “one gaffe can travel very quickly and really throw you off, for even a day or week.”

“She needs to shake off the rust and not put herself in a situation where she’s gonna make such careless errors,” he said.

Even allies suggested she may not be prepared for the political press again after dealing for so long with policy-focused inquiries while at State.

“The world she’s lived in for such a long time is a totally different animal,” said one former aide, who worked with Clinton during her time in her husband’s White House. “There’s some legitimacy to the rustiness, because it is a little bit more nimble of an exercise dealing with the political press than it is with people who are really focused on policy.” 

Clinton is cognizant of fact that she would face scrutiny. She reportedly held preparation sessions before her media blitz this week, and that effort could be seen in the nuanced answers she gave during interviews on issues like the attacks on Benghazi and her relationship with Obama.

But on others, some of the questions that dogged her during her 2008 run — her prickliness with the press, the perception of her as unrelatable — again emerged.

In her interview with Gross, she repeatedly pushed back on his line of questioning seeking to clarify her position on gay marriage and what caused her to change her mind on it. The substance of her answer, which most observers agreed was muddled at best, got lost in the combativeness of the exchange.

The former aide said that aggressiveness is an inherent quality to Clinton, but noted it’s one she’ll have to consider if she does decide to run again.

“I think there is an innateness to her resistance to conformity that makes it challenging for her to play that game,” the former aide said. “She felt like she was being dogged, it felt like she tried a couple of times to play along, and she got a little testy — which I think is human nature, but also will have to be part of that calculus if she decides to run.”

And her comments on being “dead broke” when she left the White House were reminiscent of comments 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney made that reinforced a perception of him as being too rich to understand average Americans.

“[That comment] reminds people that she has lived in an elite bubble for decades, that she has not been  around average people or had to interact with normal people for quite a long time,” Williams, the former Romney aide, said.

He warned that if too many such comments stack up, “at some point you just lose the benefit of the doubt.”

“At some point, if you don’t control it, it gets away from you and even small things become big things considering your previous history,” said Williams. 

That gaffe and the backlash she’s faced for it highlight the double edged sword of emerging back into the spotlight this far in advance of a potential presidential run.

It leaves a full six months, at least, for missteps, criticism and GOP attacks before she officially jumps in the race.

But it also gives her a chance to test-run her message, fine-tune her operation and ample time for the public to forget any gaffes she made on day one of her book tour.

“She will learn some lessons from 2008. And will she be a better candidate in 2016? Absolutely,” Elmendorf said.

And it perhaps gives her the opportunity not to recalibrate but to reintroduce herself to the American public, more sure of who she is and what she stands for. As she put it in her interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer on Monday, “I’m going to say what I know, what I believe, and let the chips fall.” 

Democratic strategist Chris Lehane argued that’s just what the public has been seeing from her this week.

“I think she is at a place where she is very comfortable with who she is, what she believes and is going to be unabashed about it,” he said in an email. “And in a day and age where authenticity matters — it is good to be who you are.”