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Hillary Clinton supporters gather to talk 2016 strategy

Donors and strategists likely to be involved in a potential Hillary Clinton presidential campaign gathered Friday in New York to talk strategy.

When donors and strategists likely to be involved in a potential Hillary Clinton presidential campaign gathered Friday in New York, they had three dates on their mind: 2008, when Clinton's first presidential run collapsed; November 2014, when Democrats got beat; and November 2016, when the Clintons might reclaim the White House.

It was anxiety about the former two dates, but especially anticipation about the latter, that brought the Clinton supporters to the ballroom of the Sheraton hotel in Times Square for a meeting sponsored by Ready for Hillary, the pro-Clinton super PAC working tirelessly to convince the former secretary of state to make a second presidential bid in 2016. 

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The group has been laying the groundwork for a likely Clinton presidential campaign for more than a year, as Clinton herself raises her profile and increasingly steps onto the political stage. She visited keys states to campaign for Democrats in midterm elections, and has been weighing in on political issues of the day more often. For the people here, the big hypothetical they've all been thinking about is getting very close to reality. 

But how close remains unclear. Two dates that didn’t seem front of mind: When Clinton would announce her likely campaign, and the Democratic primary calendar. Most supporters assumed Clinton’s candidacy is a foregone conclusion, and all said they expected a primary challenge but did not seem overly concerned about one.

Harold Ickes, a longtime Clinton aide who served as deputy White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, and then advised Hillary Clinton’s three post-White House campaigns, looked instead ahead to the general election of 2016. “The presidential will be in my view a very tough race. I would think that a Jeb Bush and a Rob Portman -- just as a hypothetical -- would be a strong ticket for them,” Ickes told reporters. “Can a Democrat win the White House without both of Ohio and Florida? The answer is yes, but it then has to be a perfect storm.”

Bush, whose wife is Mexican-American, speaks fluent Spanish and has what “appears to be very strong credentials with Hispanics,” Ickes said. “I’m told that he actually thinks in Spanish.”

Ready For Hillary, which started in early 2013 to draft Clinton into the race, has morphed in a heavyweight political organization, and the quasi-official channel of enthusiasm for a Clinton run. The group has raised nearly $11 million and assembled a valuable list of 3 million Clinton supporters, in addition to securing endorsements from dozens of top Democratic officials.

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While supporters who gathered Friday will likely have some involvement in any Clinton campaign, few had actual knowledge of Clinton's current thinking. Inside the main ballroom of the Sheraton, donors heard panels from leading Democratic strategists like Paul Begala and James Carville, as well as some elected officials. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, spoke about why he was “ready for Hillary.”

Operatives involved in the 2014 midterm elections -- which cost Democrats control of the Senate and several goverors' mansions across the country -- tried to explain what went wrong for Democrats. Guy Cecil, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and a rumored potential Clinton campaign manager, told donors to look for bright spots in the otherwise dreary results, and explained how his group’s get-out-the-vote efforts lessened what could have been even worse losses for the party, according to people in the room.

“We have not yet figured out a message on the economy that resonates with working class voters,” Mitch Stewart, Obama’s field organizing guru, who now serves as a senior adviser for Ready for Hillary, told reporters afterward. “We have not been able to persuade them that our values align, that we’re fighting for you.”

“That’s my biggest concern. We have to come up with an economic message that shows we’re on their side,” he added.

Ohio State Sen. Nina Turner, who has also endorsed Clinton via Ready for Hillary, told msnbc that Democrats are in denial if they don’t reckon with 2014 before moving on to 2016. “We can’t just keep pinning all of our hopes and dreams in the president” and keep losing midterm elections, she said.

Still, Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily’s List and another rumored candidate for a senior Clinton campaign position, said the landscape will be far more favorable for Democrats in 2016 than 2014. “This election [2014] may have as much to do with 2016 as ‘10 and had to do with ‘12, which is not very much,” she said, referring to Democrats’ shellacking in the 2010 midterms, followed by the success in re-electing Obama two years later.

The date that no one seemed too worried about was 2015, during which a Democratic primary will be fought. This week, former Virginia Democratic Sen. Jim Webb threw his hat in the ring by announcing an exploratory committee, while former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders are poised to get in the running soon, too.

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The collective posture from more than a dozen Clinton-aligned Democrats asked about potential Democratic challengers seemed to be one of benign neglect.

“All these guys, 95% of what they stand for is stuff that everybody in that room, including me, has spent our whole life fighting for,” said Craig Smith, a former Clinton White House political director, who is now a senior adviser to Ready for HIllary. “If they want to run, they can. I’m not going to say anything negative about those guys.”

Several people said a primary would be good for Clinton. “A healthy primary is generally good for the process. And I think it’s good for the ultimate nominee in the process,” said Schriock.

Stewart said he welcomed the process. “There's a lot of qualified candidates that are going to take a hard look at this. I don't think any of us who are supportive of a potential Clinton candidacy thought this was going to be a coronation."

Still, Buffy Wicks, the executive director of the high-dollar Priorities USA super PAC, would not rule out using the super PAC to attack Democratic primary opponents. That group spent $65 million running devastating ads during the 2012 presidential cycle targeting Mitt Romney’s career at Bain Capital before switching allegiances to Clinton this year.

A different primary seemed to loom larger in people’s mind: 2008, when Clinton’s previous presidential ambitions were derailed.

Chris LeHane, another longtime Clinton adviser, said he’s encouraged by the way Clinton has conducted herself in recent months, saying she appears to be learning the lessons of 2008. “The mere fact that this is taking place today. This organization, that has existed now for almost a year, attests to that. In and of itself, this is a proof point of lessons learned,” he said.

Indeed, since it’s inception, those involved in Ready for Hillary and allied outside groups -- many of whom were also involved in Clinton's 2008 campaign -- have been hyper-conscious of previous missteps and sought to avoid them.

The groups have sought to minimize internal strife, which was a hallmark of the 2008 campaign, and also worked to build better relations with the media. One panel Friday was titled, “The Clintons and the Media: Then and Now.” While reporters were not allowed in the ballroom, where the main event was taking place, speakers were brought back to take questions from the press in a sort of rolling press conference throughout the day.

At the reception, some donors said they hoped Clinton’s actual 2016 campaign will learn lessons from the pre-campaign. But first, she has to run.