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Hillary Clinton's perfect opportunity to do nothing

A humbled Clinton will make her first visit to Iowa since the state cost her the White House six years ago.
Former U.S. Secretary of State, Clinton, gestures during a conference at the Seminar \"Mexico Siglo XXI\" organized by Telmex foundation, in Mexico City
Former U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton speaks in Mexico City on Sept. 5, 2014.

All eyes will be on Hillary Clinton Sunday when the she makes her much-anticipated return to Iowa.

The former secretary of state will appear at a Democratic event hosted by retiring Sen. Tom Harkin, which many are viewing as the unofficial kickoff of Clinton's second attempt at the White House. But the appearance will be a perfect chance for Clinton to cede the spotlight and reintroduce a humbled version of herself to the state that undid her seemingly inevitable candidacy six years ago.

“It’s a great opportunity for her to do nothing,” said Norm Sterzenbach, the former executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party.

Harkin’s annual Steak Fry is the Iowa Democratic Party’s signature political event, and this year’s carries extra resonance since it’s Harkin’s last, giving Clinton a chance to show her respect for the state and its venerable senator.

“I think [Clinton] will do nothing here except honor Tom Harkin. It is his day. And I think she will be incredibly sensitive to that,” said Bonnie Campbell, a former attorney general and gubernatorial candidate in Iowa who has become an early supporter of Clinton 2.0, via the Ready for Hillary super PAC.

Iowa’s caucus format gives underdogs with committed followings a chance to upset better resourced frontrunners. That’s what happened to Clinton in 2008, when she came in an embarrassing third place behind Barack Obama and John Edwards. And it’s a danger that underscores her potential second run.

Still, several Iowa Democrats who spoke with msnbc say Clinton is much stronger than she was six years ago, and that she can learn from Obama's 2008 playbook.

“The problem with the campaign in 2008 in general was that she wasn't connecting with Iowa caucus goers,” said Sterzenbach, who managed the causes for the party that year. A memo that leaked from Clinton's deputy campaign manager suggesting the campaign skip the state entirely only confirmed Democrats’ worst suspicions.

“But if she comes out in 2016 and immediately hits the ground running in Iowa and shows that she's interested in building an organization and communicating directly with Iowa caucus goers, then I don't think that anything from 2008 is going to remain,” Sterzenbach continued.

Clinton has a commanding lead in early polling of the state, with her closest competitor, Vice President Joe Biden, trailing 54 points behind, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average. Of course, there's plenty of time for that to change. 

Tyler Olson, a state representative from Cedar Rapids and a former state party chairman, was an early supporter of Obama in 2008, but has signed on with Ready for Hillary this time. “Talking to people here, she's in a very strong position. I just don't see a lot of weakness,” he said.

And Clinton seems to be taking no chances, using one of the state’s biggest political events to return to Iowa even before the midterm elections. That’s a good move, says Olson. “That person-to-person connection ... It just takes time, there's no substitute for time,” he said.

Ready for Hillary is hoping to give a future Clinton campaign a head start, working to build a list of supporters that it can one day turn over to an official organization.

And while it’s unclear who -- if anyone -- might challenge Clinton for the Democratic nomination, she’s likely to have the support of some key operatives who helped engineer her defeat six years ago. Mitch Stewart, for instance, Obama’s highly respected Iowa Caucuses field director, is already working with the pro-Clinton super PAC.

Clinton’s Iowa operation is remembered as a failure, but Jeff Link, a longtime Harkin strategist who consulted for Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, said she ran a strong campaign -- Obama just ran a better one.

“The No. 1 thing she has to do,” Link said, is to make her campaign “about what she wants to do, and where she wants to take the country. If it’s about her and her history, she limits her potential audience and her potential appeal. ... That was one of the keys to success for Obama. He never made it about himself.”

Beyond message and retail politics, Clinton may also be able to learn from Obama’s behind-the-scenes organization, which was less hierarchical, more focused, and nimbler than hers.

“One of the advantages that we had was a laser-like attention on one state,” said Henry De Sio, the chief operating officer of Obama’s 2008 campaign, who jokes that he worked in “Chicago, Iowa” because of the primacy given to the early state at campaign headquarters.

De Sio, who has since left politics, details in his new book the unsexy but critical administrative tactics that allowed team Obama to set up field offices faster, connect with supporters better, and otherwise outmaneuver the better financed and more experienced Clinton team.

Meanwhile, Clinton may get some help from a proposed change to caucus rules which some believe could benefit the former first lady by increasing turnout from demographics that are likely to support her.

But even with all the stars seemingly aligning in her favor, don’t expect Clinton to risk anything Sunday on her first visit to Iowa in 2,446 days.