Hillary Clinton's bittersweet return to the US National Democratic Convention

Mrs Hillary Clinton speaking live from her home in Chappaqua wearing the same white pantsuit in which she accepted the 2016 nomination. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Hillary Clinton, whose presidential candidacy in 2016 sent Joe Biden to the sidelines, spent much of the 2020 primaries telling friends that her long-time ally and one-time rival was the only contender who could defeat President Donald Trump, according to people close to both.

But she also saw Ms Kamala Harris as a possible successor of sorts, a next-generation leader with the toughness to build on Mrs Clinton's legacy.

So Mrs Clinton is, by all accounts, reassured by the Biden-Harris ticket.

But her return to centre stage at the convention Wednesday night (Aug 19), four years after becoming the first woman to win the nomination of a major party, was bittersweet.

Had things turned out differently, Mrs Clinton would have been delivering her second acceptance speech.

Instead, she spent the last several days putting the finishing touches on an address aimed at making a case for Mr Biden and Ms Harris.

It was a familiar position for the former secretary of state.

For decades, she spoke on behalf of her husband, Bill, then to help elect Mr Barack Obama.

Over her many years at the centre of the Democratic Party, she campaigned for hundreds of federal, state and local candidates.

Yet, the moment was uniquely emotional for Mrs Clinton and the tens of millions who propelled her to a popular-vote majority of nearly three million in 2016 but a loss in the Electoral College.

It was a reminder of a job some allies still maintain was unfairly taken from Mrs Clinton and the wave of feminist activism sparked by her loss.

"For four years people have told me, I didn't realise how dangerous he was, wish I could do it all over again," she said, speaking live from her home in Chappaqua wearing the same white pantsuit in which she accepted the 2016 nomination, a nod to the informal uniform of the women's suffrage movement.

"And don't forget, Joe and Kamala can win by three million votes and still lose," she said, exhorting Democrats to vote.

"Take it from me. So we need numbers overwhelming so Trump can't sneak or steal his way to victory." Mrs Clinton - who threw in an "it still takes a village" for old times' sake - saw her return to the spotlight as an opportunity to harness the powerful feminist movement that grew out of her loss and to eject Mr Trump from power.

The last time Mrs Clinton addressed a Democratic convention was July 26, 2016, in Philadelphia's hockey arena.

It was a highlight of her campaign, say former aides, vindication for decades of gruelling work, brutal attacks and controversy.

"I remember watching that roll call vote and being on bated breath knowing there would be something that would take this moment away from her and being so relieved when it wasn't," recalled Ms Amanda Litman, a political strategist who worked on Mrs Clinton's campaign.

"It was the most celebratory it ever felt."

She added: "It's also proof positive that a very good convention has no relevance to the outcome of the election." But there were danger signs, even then.

Mrs Clinton's speech was preceded by a queasy moment, when supporters of Mr Bernie Sanders began booing as she took the stage, to be quickly drowned out by shouts of "Hillary!"

The scars of 2016 have not entirely healed, especially when it comes to the FBI's investigation into her e-mail accounts, publicly reopened by FBI Director James Comey just 11 days before the election.

On Tuesday, Mrs Clinton posted a brief video clip of herself blinking disdainfully in response to a tweet by Mr Comey that read: "#19thAmendment is an important anniversary but the vote is not enough. We need more women in office. VP and Virginia governor are good next steps."

Mrs Clinton's return performance at the convention was hailed by her many millions of supporters.

But there were hecklers, too - led by Mr Trump, who has tried, without much success, to find another foil who evokes comparable vitriol among conservatives as the former first lady.

A few hours before she spoke he issued an obligatory "Crooked Hillary" taunt on Twitter.

Mrs Clinton remains a divisive figure among parts of her party, blamed by some for the Democrats' defeat and considered by others to be a victim of a misogynistic political system.

She is trying not to be defined by her enemies - on the right or the left. Mrs Clinton's speech was as focused on praising Mr Biden and Ms Harris as it was on burying Mr Trump, with a forceful testimonial to the first woman of colour on a major party's presidential ticket.

She also discussed what she sees as a connective thread between Mr Biden, Ms Harris and herself - their strong mothers.

Mrs Clinton has never forgotten Mr Biden's efforts to console her over the death of her mother, Dorothy, in 2011 at the age of 92.

Mrs Clinton reciprocated and reached out to Mr Biden after his son Beau learnt he had terminal brain cancer in 2013.

After considering a third presidential run in early 2019, Mrs Clinton offered private support for Mr Biden without endorsing him, calling the former vice-president on several occasions to give advice and encouragement, two Democrats close to the situation said.

"Hillary Clinton really likes Joe Biden, and always has," said Mr Thomas Nides, a Biden supporter who served as undersecretary of state for Mrs Clinton from 2011 to 2013.

"This is a real thing, not politics. She really liked him as a human being, and the feeling is mutual."

During Mr Obama's first term, Mr Biden and Mrs Clinton had a standing breakfast appointment every two weeks at the vice-president's residence at the Naval Observatory.

But the relationship was tested in the second term when it became apparent to Mr Biden that the president viewed Mrs Clinton as his rightful successor.

Mr Biden was privately furious, and two of his top aides, Mr Mike Donilon and Mr Steve Ricchetti, drafted a memo outlining his strengths as a candidate, arguing that negative perceptions of Mrs Clinton made her a deeply vulnerable candidate.

The death of Beau Biden in mid-2015 effectively ended Mr Biden's aspirations that cycle.

But he has often contended he could have beaten Mr Trump.

He campaigned vigorously for Mrs Clinton, but the bitter experience of being pushed to stand down helped fuel his fire to run again, aides said.

More than anything, Mrs Clinton is embracing the role as a gender trailblazer that has defined her career, an updated version of the never-give-up message she delivered in the most admired address she has ever delivered, the "glass ceiling" speech that signified her exit from the 2008 Democratic primary.

During her last campaign, Mrs Clinton hoped to ride into office on the support of such a feminist uprising.

The fact that the movement she hoped to spark grew from her defeat marks another twist in a career full of them.

In the Trump era, women have mobilised behind the Democratic Party, volunteering, donating and running for office in record numbers.

The support of suburban women helped Democrats win control of the House in 2018, flip state legislatures and boost Mr Biden to the nomination.

Mrs Clinton still possesses a loyal constituency of female supporters.

As late as the fall of 2019, Mrs Clinton was considering a third bid for the presidency, as no real front runner emerged in the primary race.

While she cast herself as a champion of women in politics, she declined to endorse or even more subtly signal a possible female heir among the diverse group of women running for president.

When Mrs Clinton did speak out, she courted controversy.

A critique of Mr Sanders during the launch of a documentary about her spurred fears that she was reigniting divides within the party.

And her suggestion that Republicans were grooming Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii to become a third-party spoiler helped Ms Gabbard extend her time in the national spotlight.

But many of Mrs Clinton's long-time supporters saw Wednesday night's speech as an opportunity for her to transfer her legacy to someone else - not to Mr Biden but to Ms Harris.

"She's passing the torch to the Kamala Harris generation. That's what makes it really exciting," said Ms Litman, now the executive director of Run for Something, which encourages young Democrats to seek political office.

"It's not just to Kamala Harris but to a whole generation of women that come next that can do so because Hillary Clinton went first."

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