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Inside the right's 2016 campaign against Hillary Clinton

"She should be treated as a candidate until she asks her friends and PACs to stand down,” says Tim Miller, the executive director of America Rising PAC.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivers remarks on May 6, 2014 in National Harbor, Maryland.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivers remarks on May 6, 2014 in National Harbor, Maryland.

It's not only Democrats who are ready for Hillary.

The presidential election is 917 days away and Hillary Clinton hasn't even declared her candidacy. But there's already a huge conservative push to discredit the former secretary of state, with goal of tainting Clinton’s reputation, dredging up scandals of decades past, and dragging her down before she can ever get close to the Oval Office.

Conservatives are focusing on Benghazi and her husband’s decades-old affair with Monica Lewinsky. The former presidential intern emerged after a long silence Tuesday, writing a post for Vanity Fair where she said Bill Clinton "took advantage" of her.

The groups are also raising cash and pouring over historical records for potential ammunition. One conservative group is ready to pounce in the event that there are any factual inaccuracies in Clinton’s forthcoming memoir.

Too early? Never. 

“Every action that she has taken to this point indicates that she is running. She should be treated as a candidate until she asks her friends and PACs to stand down,” Tim Miller, the executive director of America Rising PAC, told msnbc.

The group, which has approximately 50 full time staffers, conducts opposition research on other Democratic candidates but has a team dedicated to solely work on Clinton’s potential run. It includes a full-time staffer in Arkansas who’s combing through documents at the Clinton Presidential Library looking for any relevant 2016 information. The team is also doing research on the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative. and looking through State Department records to gather “necessary information to make a case against whatever she decides to put out in that book,” Miller said. 

America Rising is behind the “Stop Hillary 2016” fundraising initiative aimed at quelling support for Clinton. Even with May’s slew of 2014 Senate and gubernatorial primaries on the horizon, emblazoned on the America Rising website on Tuesday was a large picture of Clinton with the top story: “Top 5 shocking Benghazi updates this week.”

Other groups are also taking aim. Karl Rove’s American Crossroads super PAC has put out web videos suggesting Clinton was part of a cover up following the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.

Miller said one of the biggest lessons from the 2012 presidential race was that Obama gained a big advantage from having a head start on the GOP, particularly in grassroots organizing. He also said the Ready for Hillary super PAC and pro-Clinton organizations like Correct The Record and Priorities USA are essentially running a campaign infrastructure for her. Several Democratic lawmakers have also endorsed a Clinton candidacy and pledged to raise money for the groups supporting her. 

It's like an arms race -- if Hillary supporters are going to stockpile, conservatives are going to gather their own political weapons to push back.

“It’s important that there’s a group to counterbalance…Hillary’s trying to have her cake and eat it too, letting her allies build her campaign and asking to be treated like a private citizen,” Miller said.

GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky – another likely 2016 candidate—told Fox News this week that Clinton should be subpoenaed regarding Benghazi. The remarks come after Republicans announced that a former federal prosecutor will chair a special new congressional panel on the attacks.

Conservatives have continually tried to blame Clinton for the 2012 tragedy, which left four Americans dead, including Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens. In the aftermath of the siege, the Obama administration incorrectly said the attacks were the result of a video on the internet that angered Muslims—and not a planned, terrorist attack, which it turned out to be. Conservatives have not let go of the notion that White House officials were somehow involved in a cover-up despite a Senate Intelligence Committee report and an independent review board lending no evidence to the allegation.

Newly released emails have given the right new drive. They show then-White House Deputy Strategic Communications Adviser Ben Rhoades listing several goals for then-United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice before she went on national television to discuss the attack.  Rhoades wrote that one “goal” was for Rice to “underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader foreign policy.”

As msnbc reported earlier this week, Columnist Charles Krauthammer, compared  the email to the  Watergate tapes. An aide to House Speaker John Boehner called the Rhodes email “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Clinton saw a big dip in her approval ratings after the Benghazi attack so it’s easy to see why Republicans would want to keep hammering. But it's not stopping there.

Conservatives have also revisited seedier aspects about the Clintons' White House years, including the Lewinsky scandal which led to Bill Clinton's impeachment by the Republican-controlled House in 1998. Paul has brought up the Lewinsky affair several times, questioning his “predatory behavior.” Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus said earlier this year that the Lewinsky scandal is perfectly acceptable to bring up should the former senator run.

“I think everything’s on the table,” he told msnbc in February.

And after news was announced last month that the Clintons’ daughter, Chelsea, was expecting a baby with husband Marc Mezvinsky, many began to speculate just how the new title of “grandmother’ could affect Clinton’s 2016 ambition, even suggesting it was a political maneuver. 

The Drudge Report immediately posted an unflattering photo of Clinton with the headline “Grandma Hillary.” The implication was clear: she’s too old to be president. The coverage immediately sparked accusations of ageism.

Jeanne Zaino, a professor of political science at Iona College and of political campaign management at New York University, said the early, ugly rhetoric is indicative of what’s in store and just how nasty a Clinton run would be should she decide to throw her hat into the ring.

“These issues aren’t going to impact voters. They will impact fundraising” and motivate the GOP base, Zaino said. Clinton, who also sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008,  is  well aware of the animosity she would face, Zaino added. 

P.J. Crowley, a former assistant secretary of state for public affairs under Clinton and now a professor at George Washington University, said the GOP is picking a losing strategy if Clinton does decide to run and they make 2016 about Benghazi and Lewinsky.

“Elections are about the present and the future, how confident the American people are about the trajectory of the country and whether a particular candidate can advance America's global interests. Elections are not about the past,” Crowley said. 

Attempting to derail campaigns long before they start, however, is nothing new, notes presidential historian and University of Texas at Austin professor H.W. Brands. He pointed to Thomas Jefferson, who lost to John Adams in 1796. After the election, his supporters immediately began to prepare for the 1800 rematch. And Andrew Jackson's advocates were going full steam by mid-1825 for his 1828 campaign.

 “This has a long history,” said Brands.