FALLS CHURCH, Va. – Hillary Clinton is officially back in politics.
The former secretary of state made her first foray onto the campaign trail since leaving the State Department by stumping for Terry McAuliffe, who has opened up a steady lead as the Democratic candidate in next month's Virginia governor's race.
Clinton was greeted with a rockstar welcome by the 650-plus capacity crowd that packed into the historic State Theatre in the Northern Virginia suburb of Falls Church on Saturday afternoon. McAuliffe may have been the candidate up for election, but all eyes were on Clinton—McAuliffe's own introduction of her was interrupted only a few words in with loud chants of "Hillary! Hillary!"
Women have helped McAuliffe edge out a lead against Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli for the hotly contested gubernatorial race in just 16 days, and on Saturday he brought in the biggest surrogate of all to help him seal the deal. Clinton hammered home women's rights as a centerpiece of McAuliffe's campaign. Though Cuccinelli was never mentioned by name, speakers at the event Saturday warned of the Republican's efforts to roll back access to abortion and health care.
"The whole country is watching to see whether the rights of women and girls will be respected, especially over our own bodies and our health care," said Clinton.
Both McAuliffe and his wife, Dorthy, also reiterated that as governor, McAuliffe would "stand like a brick wall between extreme legislation and Virginia's women."
Years out from the 2016 presidential race, Clinton is already widely considered as a leading contender for the Democratic nomination. Though Clinton insists that she has not decided whether to run, her speech Saturday featured some of her most partisan barbs since she left Foggy Bottom earlier this year.
In a not so-subtle slam at Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and other House Republicans who pushed for a defunding of the president's health care plan at any cost in order to resolve the stalemate, Clinton slammed "politicians who choose scorched earth over common ground" and who "operate in the 'evidence free zone'" to push their policies.
Clinton also tied Cuccinelli to the just-resolved 16-day government shutdown, saying the Tea Party-backed GOP nominee would bring divisive politics to Richmond as well.
"I've seen leaders that are divisive and I've seen leaders that are unifiers, leaders who are exclusive and l've seen leaders who are inclusive," Clinton said, recalling her world travels as secretary of state. "Unfortunately in Washington we have seen examples of the wrong kind of leadership."
While both Clintons have held fundraisers for McAuliffe, it was Clinton's first appearance on the trail alongside McAuliffe at the event specifically pegged toward women -- a critical voting bloc in a rapidly changing Virginia that's crucial for any winning statewide campaign. According to an NBC4/NBC News/Marist poll released last week, McAuliffe is edging Cuccinelli by 20 points among women likely to vote on Nov. 5.
The relationship between the Clintons and McAuliffe, once referred to as the "First Friend," is long and storied. The former Democratic National Committee chairman later chaired Hillary's own 2008 bid for the White House. McAuliffe's own retooled campaign this year, after a failed primary bid in 2009, features many other Clinton veterans who could be integral in a possible 2016 campaign for the former First Lady, including McAuliffe campaign manager Robby Mook, who directed Clinton's wins in Indiana, Nevada and Ohio.
Reminiscing on the relationship she and her husband had with the McAuliffes, the former first lady also sought to soften up McAuliffe's image, who's been criticized -- partly by his own doing thanks to his memoirs -- as too focused on money and politics,
"Terry has maybe the biggest heart and most open mind of anyone you'll ever meet," said Clinton. "Terry has always been there for me and I'm pleased to be here for him."
Emphasizing turnout and crucial get out the vote efforts, Clinton didn't mention whether she might be on the ballot again in three years, but did laugh that she'd been on both the winning and losing side of campaigns. And in an off-year contest that has historically seen heavier Republican turnout, Democrats are banking on their voters to show up not just in presidential years.
"We're coming down to the homestretch," she said. "I've been in a lot of elections and I know that at the end of the day, it comes down to who takes the trouble to show up and vote."
Outside the historic theatre, a few protestors held up signs calling attention to McAuliffe's own flaws- his efforts to shed his Washington insider image certainly won't be helped by Clinton's appearance.
Cuccinelli, who was stumping with former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee in Lynchburg on Saturday, has been playing to his conservative base in the home stretch, hoping an energetic GOP turnout can save him. But polls show he's been badly damaged among women, carries high negatives and certainly hasn't been helped by the 16-day government shutdown that affected many in the Old Dominion directly. And Cuccinelli also delivered the weekly GOP address on Saturday, highlighting his opposition to Obamacare and noting flaws in the health care exchange website rolled out at the first of the month.
In a statement, his campaign pointed McAuliffe's negatives, saying his election would mean a return to Clinton era politics.
“You won't hear them talk about their close ties to a Rhode Island donor who made huge profits by taking advantage of terminally ill patients. Nor will you hear them brag about the years of Bill Clinton's presidency when Terry McAuliffe sold seats on Air Force One and was the booking agent for the Lincoln Bedroom," said Cuccinelli communications director Richard T. Cullen. "If there was any doubt that Terry McAuliffe would bring Washington, DC, big-government politics to Richmond, today is your proof.”
But voters who left the rally say it's been Cuccinelli's social positions that have energized them and solidified, even if they haven't agreed with McAuliffe on everything.
"I know [McAuliffe's] got a few issues that people talk about, but Cuccinelli is definitely not going to be in my bedroom," said Kathy Sellz, a special education teacher from nearby Burke.
"No politician is 100% the greatest on all sides, but you have to pick and choose your issues," added Sellz, who said she considers herself a Democrat but has voted for Republicans before.
Sellz, who backed Obama in 2008, had rave reviews for Hillary's speech though, and said she hoped she would run in 2016.
Christopher Ambrose of Fairfax praised McAuliffe's "energy level" and his business background as one reason he was backing him. And, he said he hoped the next time Clinton was in the commonwealth, it was as a candidate.
"It's pretty early, but I think she'd make a great president," said Ambrose. "Her speech was right on. She was talking about things that matter here in Virginia."