ARLINGTON, Va. — The new first rule for running a presidential campaign 27 months before the next election: Don’t look like you’re running a presidential campaign.
Hillary Clinton’s Saturday signing for “Hard Choices,” her new political memoir recounting her tenure as secretary of state, at a Costco in Northern Virginia certainly had all the trappings of a standard campaign event.
There was a red, white and blue bus parked out back, plastered with Clinton’s name and the now famous image of her texting aboard a military plane, above the admonishment “Please don’t text and drive.”
This bus, of course, does not belong to an official campaign but to a hybrid PAC, Ready for Hillary, a group formed by Clinton supporters to lay the groundwork for an eventual campaign that has raised $5.7 million.
In true campaign fashion, the bus started out in Des Moines, Iowa, and has been tailing Clinton on her book tour, ginning up enthusiasm. On Saturday, about 20 Ready for Hillary volunteers descended on the parking lot, distributing bumper stickers, posters and buttons and getting the contact information of would-be voters and donors.
“It is unprecedented to have this much support behind a candidate who has yet to announce. Millions have been inspired by her,” said Seth Bringman, communications director for the organization. “We want to let her know that should she decide to run, there will be all of this behind her already.”
There were the superfans, the first of whom had begun to line up Friday night to get their chance to shake the hand of their political idol. Although “"Hard Choices” had official billing, 2016 was definitively the elephant in the wholesale warehouse.
Danelle Jobe, 28, was in tears as she emerged from a vast, six-feet-high fortress-maze of water bottles and paper towel rolls that Costco employees had constructed to shield Clinton from the view of shoppers and gawkers who were not purchasing a book. (An Al Jazeera reporter didn’t catch a glimpse.) Jobe half-joked to a friend that she might never wash her hand again, while the former first lady would likely be bathing herself in Purell after the signing.
“She is who she is, and she’s passionate and determined and everything that I think a politician should be,” Jobe said. “I think any woman in the White House would be great, but she’s far and away my first choice.”
Dean Yorgey, 67, and Sue Korty, 66, looked morose after after arriving at 9:30 a.m. and being informed that they could not attend the signing because they did not have Costco memberships. That didn’t dampen their enthusiasm for an eventual Clinton candidacy.
“There’s just no competition,” Yorgey said. “She’ll win by 8 million votes.”
There was a level of security that seemed comically incongruous with a venue where shoppers usually go to buy things like 100-count hot dog packs. In addition to the paper-towel-water-bottle fortress, the signing had a set of nine guidelines (“Unfortunately there will be no time for pictures” and “Only copies of ‘Hard Choices’ will be signed”) that shoppers had to follow. Still, supporters waited hours for their approximately 10 seconds with Clinton in a line that wound through the aisles and stretched into the parking lot.
There were even celebrity cameos: Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., arrived at the signing, as did Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who told reporters she happened to be shopping there.
And then there was the opposition, which might be the truest marker of how prematurely Clinton seems to have cemented her status as the Democratic candidate for president, before a single vote has been cast in a primary or caucus.
In addition to protesters on the sidewalk outside decrying Clinton’s handling of 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, the Republican National Committee dispatched a handful of staffers to distribute anti-Clinton materials as well as a dancing squirrel mascot whose shirt read, “Another Clinton in the White House is nuts.” The squirrel and the staffers are planning on making it to as many Clinton book tour stops as possible.
“We’ll continue to follow her so people can know the truth about Hillary Clinton,” said Raffi Williams, a spokesman for the RNC. “She’s gotten $50 million of free media this week, and we want to make sure that we’re here to counteract that. This is obviously a campaign tour, and we’re going to call it what it is. She is barnstorming the country.”
Clinton is hardly the first politician to test the waters of a political run with a book tour, which, like its cousin the listening tour, is a way to gauge support, rally fans, get media attention and see how it feels to run a political campaign.
“We all suspect this is a pre-emptive move before she declares and runs a campaign. Many politicians do book tours before they do run,” said Dimitrios Donavos, 37, of Laurel, Maryland, who worked for Clinton during her 2008 effort in Pennsylvania and arrived at Costco to meet her in the flesh. “I have worked for Hillary. I know she is entirely capable, and I want to be here to show my enthusiasm.”
According to early reviews, “Hard Choices” is relatively standard and uncontroversial fare, as far as political memoirs go, methodically recounting the major dilemmas Clinton faced as secretary of state but never going too far out on a limb. Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic strategist who worked with the Clintons in the 1990s, said the book allows Clinton to flaunt her foreign policy credentials and, more important, lay the foundation for a campaign, with all the attendant fanfare as well as the infrastructure.
“The fact that either she has set it up or the infrastructure has been created for her will be a tremendous asset for her campaign,” he said. “All she has to do is get in the car, put the key in the ignition.”
On whether such frenzy has ever enveloped another not-quite candidate so early in the cycle, Sheinkopf said, “Well, there have been no other Clintons in the history of American politics.”