The empires strike back
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The two most famous names in the 2016 presidential race are hosting their biggest events to date.

Hilary Clinton will hold her first large-scale public rally on Saturday on Roosevelt Island in New York. Jeb Bush, who has been a de facto candidate for months, is expected to officially launch his candidacy on Monday at Miami-Dade College in Florida.

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While both occasions are expected to have a celebratory air, Clinton and Bush are also looking to steady their campaigns and ease concerns among the party faithful about their chances.

“What we have here are two frontrunners who are running into obstacles. Some of those obstacles are from unforced errors, but there are also strong headwinds from the more ideological elements of their parties,” said Kellyanne Conway, a GOP pollster who is not affiliated with any 2016 candidate.

Anxiety is running especially high among Bush supporters. The former Florida governor has not become the dominant figure in the GOP race as they once expected, instead facing stiff competition from fellow Floridian Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, in particular.

Bush is polling poorly in the first-caucus state of Iowa, where he lies in fourth place in the RealClearPolitics average. He badly fumbled his response to a predictable question about Iraq last month, unnerving supporters. 

Just this week, Bush’s campaign-to-be announced a shake-up, with communications expert Danny Diaz now poised to take the reins as campaign manager, rather than David Kochel, who had been widely expected to assume that role.

Bush loyalists within and outside the campaign stress that it is early days and that the former governor has many strengths, especially from an organizational and financial standpoint.

“The consistent theme of the Republican primary campaign for 2016 thus far is ‘Who’s going to beat Jeb Bush?’ ” said Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Florida Republican strategist who worked as a senior adviser to Bush back in his 1994 campaign for governor. “Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Ben Carson all bounced off him. Scott Walker will have his moment. Marco is enjoying his day in the sun now. Yet there Jeb is, the guy to beat.”

Stipanovich acknowledged that things have not gone as planned for Bush in recent weeks. But he asserts that renewed determination would be a more appropriate reaction than panic.  

“Has he laid the field low, slain them in their thousand, put an end to the campaigning? No, of course not. Has everything gone perfectly? No, it never does. Have there been things that could have been done better? Probably. But he is a substantive, serious candidate.”

Other, non-aligned Republicans believe that on Monday, Bush should be focused on displaying real zest for the fight ahead.

“What Jeb Bush needs to do is show that he has the fire in the belly for a long and drawn-out campaign, after the numerous stories about his campaign being adrift,” said Ron Bonjean, a former aide to GOP leaders in Congress. “But I think actually announcing he’s running could help right the ship, and will really shine the spotlight on him.”

Clinton, meanwhile, remains an overwhelming favorite to win the Democratic nomination. But the grassroots enthusiasm generated by longshot left-wing candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) points to continued liberal unease with the former secretary of State.

Recent polling has also produced troubling findings for Clinton. A CNN poll earlier this month showed the former secretary of State was judged to be not honest or trustworthy by 57 percent of the public, as against only 42 percent who said she does exhibit those qualities.

Yet the symbolism of Saturday’s event will allow Clinton to try to claim the mantle of both President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor, a longtime heroine of hers. That, in turn, could help her with progressives.

“Success will be fending off the left by being in a populist setting, as she is in Roosevelt Island,” said New York-based Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf. “Hillary is dealing with the left right now, and that’s smart — because if Sanders were to catch fire, he wouldn’t need a lot of money.”

Some expect Clinton to use the occasion to set out a clearer rationale for her candidacy and make a more personal appeal to voters.

“Hillary Clinton is a very well-known person, yet what people need is some context for her, more than they need policy,” said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons. “The more [she talks] about how she grew up, her family, her work early in her career, the more people will understand her decision-making.” 

For Clinton, Saturday’s event is the launch pad for a new phase of her campaign, with similar rallies planned across several of the early-voting states in the days that follow. Clinton will head to Des Moines, Iowa, on Sunday.

Yet for many of the most committed liberals in her party, Clinton needs to move beyond feel-good rhetoric into substance. It has not gone unnoticed in those quarters that Clinton has avoided being pinned down on the Trans-Pacific Partnership or fast-track trade authority, even as those issues have roiled Congress this week.

A statement from MoveOn.org Political Action executive director Ilya Sherman, released late Friday afternoon, said the liberal organization’s members hoped to hear Clinton address issues such as debt-free college, expanding Social Security and “helping the people take control of our government back from big corporations.”

The nature of campaign launches or large-scale speeches is that they are judged at least as much on the cosmetics as the substance.

This could pose challenges for both Bush and Clinton, as neither candidate is considered to be a “natural” at giving scripted speeches to crowds.

Bush “has actually become a better public speaker, I think, in the last few months,” said Conway. “But Gov. Bush has not had this kind of public event in some time. This is the biggest event he’s had in literally a decade.”