Too early for 2016? Not for Hillary Clinton's fans

WASHINGTON (AP) - Hillary Rodham Clinton, perhaps as popular as ever in her 22 years in United States politics, is taking steps as a private but famous citizen that fuel fans' hopes she will run for president in 2016.

Mrs Clinton, who resigned in February after a much-praised stint as secretary of state, was scheduled to speak late Tuesday at an awards ceremony at Washington's Kennedy Centre.

Her first public speech since leaving the State Department seemed unlikely to produce a major policy or political address.

But political buzz about 2016 is inevitable, especially since Vice-President Joe Biden - another potential Democratic candidate - was scheduled to speak later at the same event.

Mrs Clinton, 65, has said she has no plans for a second presidential bid, but she has not ruled it out. Democrats argue among themselves whether she has the desire and energy to go through the grueling campaign process she knows so well.

But many see her as a prohibitive favourite whose big head start might deny funds and volunteers to other contenders.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll in January found that 67 per cent of Americans held a favourable view of Mrs Clinton.

That is her highest rating since the poll began measuring her popularity in the 1990s. It includes her eight years in the Senate.

"It's hard to overstate the breadth and depth of enthusiasm for a Hillary run," said Mr Doug Hattaway, a former Clinton campaign aide and now a Washington-based consultant.

She built a national base of supporters in 2008, when she lost a hard-fought nomination fight to Mr Barack Obama, and she's widely respected after heading the State Department, Mr Hattaway said.

"A lot of donors, volunteers and potential campaign workers will wait to hear what she decides before committing to other candidates," he said, although "anyone with their eye on 2016 is already working on it."

A group called Ready For Hillary launched its fundraising campaign on Tuesday and planned to rally outside the Kennedy Centre during Mrs Clinton's appearance.

Mr Mo Elleithee, a top spokesman for Clinton's 2008 campaign, said it's much too early to press her for an answer.

"My advice to everyone is to chill out," Mr Elleithee said. "There's no need for all this breathless anticipation," he said, adding that political activists should focus on next year's mid-term elections.

Noting that Mrs Clinton has said she has no intention of running, Mr Elleithee said, "I think that's where her head is."

But he said he shares "the enthusiasm" for a Clinton candidacy.

There may be no one in America with a clearer view of what it takes to run for president.

Mrs Clinton was a highly visible adviser and defender of her husband, Bill, then the Arkansas governor, when he was elected president in 1992.

Her eight years as first lady included the excruciating Monica Lewinsky scandal and her husband's impeachment.

On the same day her husband's successor was elected, Mrs Clinton handily won a Senate seat from New York.

She breezed to re-election in 2006 and was the early favourite for the 2008 presidential nomination.

But Mr Obama, then US senator from Illinois, used his early opposition to the Iraq war, plus a keen understanding of how to win small states' delegates, to outmaneuver the Clinton team.

Mr Obama promptly tapped his former rival to be secretary of state, assuring Mrs Clinton another prime post at the centre of national policy and politics.

Some Democrats want younger candidates, noting that Mrs Clinton will turn 69 shortly before Election Day 2016, and Mr Biden will turn 74 soon after.

Those drawing notice include New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, 55, and Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, 50.

As runner-up in the 2008 Democratic primary, Mrs Clinton arguably is the party's heir apparent.

Republicans, not Democrats, typically nominate the next-in-line contender.

With the early Republican presidential picture wildly scrambled, it's possible that Republicans will tap a newer, younger nominee while Democrats may turn to one of the nation's best-known figures, and certainly the most high-profile female politician.

Mrs Clinton and Mr Biden were appearing on Tuesday at the Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards, highlighting women's issues.

Mrs Clinton is scheduled to speak on Friday at the Women in the World Summit in New York.