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Why Hillary Clinton attracts so many early attacks

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appears at an event on Oct. 23, 2014 in New York, N.Y. (Photo by Mike Segar/Reuters)
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appears at an event on Oct. 23, 2014 in New York, N.Y.

Hillary Clinton has a gaffe problem. But it’s not her words, it’s the target on her back.

The former secretary of state is as prone to putting her foot in her mouth as any other prominent political figure. But unlike any other potential 2016 presidential contender, the other party’s entire rhetorical arsenal is already pointed at her, before she even has a campaign.

This week, 745 days before her name might appear on a general election ballot, the GOP demonstrated its firepower.

On Friday, while campaigning for Massachusetts Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martha Coakley with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Clinton tripped over her tongue by saying business don’t create jobs. “Don’t let anybody tell you it’s corporations and businesses that create jobs,” Clinton said, contradicting what she has written in several books and in her decades of public service. By Monday, the gaffe had mushroomed into a full-blown political controversy the likes of which haven't been seen since 2012’s infamous “you didn’t build that.” 

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Clinton meant to say that tax breaks for corporations and businesses don’t create jobs, as she later explained. But Republicans saw the remark as revealing Clinton’s inner leftist (she was campaigning with Warren, after all) or at least as an attempt to pander to the base.

Talk of the gaffe dominated conservative blogs and broadcasts, as outside groups piled on. Rush Limbaugh said Clinton was part of a "marauding band aiming at every private sector business they can get their hands on.” Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, declared Clinton to be bad at politics and “not ready for primetime.” Wall Streeters reportedly quivered (never mind that Republicans' previous attacks had focused on Clinton’s wealth and coziness with big money elites).

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Every presidential candidate will face manufactured controversy, but usually not before the previous election has concluded. Republicans are understandably calculating that Clinton will be her party’s next nominee, so they’re getting a jump-start on 2016’s battles in 2014. There are already teams of partisan researchers poring over every word she says, and several super PACs committed exclusively to derailing her expected-candidacy -- not to mention plenty of reporters eager for a story.

Clinton has already been chased by a Republican squirrel, Photoshopped using a walker and made several gaffes that will be filed away to haunt her later.

For the next two years, Clinton will have to endure the kind of pressure and scrutiny typically reserved for the homestretch of a presidential campaign. Anything less than perfect will be a seen as a failure for her. That raises the price of gaffes, and makes taking risks more dangerous. While the book tour for her memoir, "Hard Choices," was rife with missteps, its notable that her ventures on the campaign trail for Democrats has been mostly flawless – until Friday.

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Still, it’s nothing new for Clinton, who has spent the past 30 years in the public eye, and often at the center of controversy.  But it’s that high profile that attracts the early attacks.