REPEATED, DO NOT PUB - Too early for 2016? Not for Hillary Clinton's fans

WASHINGTON (AP) - Mrs Hillary Clinton stayed on safe political ground Tuesday, advocating women's rights globally in a 12-minute speech.

But that was enough to excite fans imploring the former first lady, senator and top United States diplomat to run again for president three years from now.

Mrs Clinton, perhaps as popular as ever in her 22 years in national politics, said she has "unwavering faith in the untapped potential of women and girls."

She spoke at the Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards, at Washington's Kennedy Center. The event, highlighting efforts such as expanding education for girls and fighting domestic violence worldwide, marked her first public speech since ending her much-praised stint as Secretary of State.

As members of the group Ready for Hillary cheered outside, the 2016 political buzz was inevitable. US Vice President Joe Biden - another potential Democratic candidate - was scheduled to speak later at the same event.

If Mrs Clinton has any jealousy, she didn't show it. She praised Mr Biden effusively, especially for his role in Congress' recent renewal of the Violence Against Women Act.

Mrs Clinton, 65, has said she has no plans for a second presidential bid, but she hasn't 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 favorite whose head start would be so big that other potential candidates might starve for funds and attention.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll in January found that 67 per cent of Americans held a favorable view of Mrs Clinton. That's her highest rating since the poll began measuring her popularity in the 1990s. It spans 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 Barack Obama, and she's widely respected after her turn 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."

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," Elleithee said. "There's no need for all this breathless anticipation at this point," he said, and political activists should focus on next year's mid-term elections.

Noting that Clinton said she has no intention of running, he said, "I think that's where her head is." But he said he shares "the enthusiasm" for a Clinton candidacy.

However, some Democrats want the party to look to 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.

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