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Mulling their futures, political stars bide time on the speaking circuit

The 2016 election is a way down the horizon, but the presidential superstars of tomorrow aren't just sitting around waiting for the ripe moment to declare (or not): For many politicians in between office and possible future bids, the political speaking circuit provides the perfect opportunity to hone their messages - and make millions in the process.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday will give her first paid speech after leaving the Obama administration, in a keynote address at the National Multi Housing Council in Dallas, Texas. Clinton, who is touted as a top Democratic contender for the 2016 nomination, hasn't yet announced her future plans, and all accounts suggest she may genuinely not know what they include. But while she mulls over her future, she stands to gain substantially from a series of public speaking appearances, in terms both financial and political.

"There are two very good reasons to do the speaking circuit: One is money and the other is exposure," said Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist now teaching at the University of Southern California. "Depending on the circumstances, you could argue that either of those two incentives is more important than the other."

For well-known political figures, doing paid speeches can be enormously lucrative - not to mention a great way to save some money if a costly political bid is around the bend: According to a personal financial disclosure report, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney made almost $375,000 in speaker's fees from February 2010 to February 2011; his fellow former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum reportedly pulls in around $15,000 per speech; Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, makes between $25,000 and $150,000 per appearance, depending on its location, according to Buzzfeed. And former President Bill Clinton reportedly earned $13.4 million on the public speaking appearances in 2011 alone.

"It's very profitable," said Peter Pober, a communications professor at George Mason University. "Especially for someone like Hillary Clinton, who can command significant amounts of money. It's a way of starting to raise some capital for herself that she might have to use down the road."

Money isn't the only perk to these high-profile engagements: For those with the time and freedom to book them, doing the public speaking circuit can also serve as an opportunity for candidates to hone their messages, connect with voters, and sell the public persona that could become critical down the line.

"These are opportunities to say, I'm not what you thought I was before, because now I can say things that really come from my heart, my intellect, my head, as an individual separated from all of those overlaying confines," said Pober, like being associated with a certain administration or being under the microscope of a political campaign.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is frequently discussed as a contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, will have just that opportunity on Wednesday -- like Clinton, in Dallas -- through an unpaid speech at a luncheon hosted by the World Affairs Council of Dallas/Fort Worth.

"Another other advantage of these types of speaking opportunities is that they give potential candidates the chance to fill in some gaps in their resumes," said Schnur. "Bush was a governor so he gets to talk about foreign policy. Clinton's been secretary of state so she gets to talk about domestic issues."

Pober argues that for Clinton and Bush, and other potential contenders like Santorum and Gingrich, the current moment - when one is in between jobs and political cycles both -- represents a "wonderful liminal zone" for future political hopefuls.

"It's what I call the bracketing phase," he said. "You have the opportunity to set a new persona for yourself, correct or adjust those elements that you think might have been previously negatively impacting the way people see you, and to share why you might have changed the way you think about something."

Once the 2016 jockeying starts in earnest, candidates will more likely be checked by the 24-hour scrutiny inevitable to the modern political campaign cycle, and which can stultify candidates who are nervous about making a misstep.

"The nature of this sort of speech can illuminate one's specialization, one's knowledge, one's intellect, one's background, in a way sometimes political speeches, or speeches within the confines of a specific office can't do," Pober said.

Politicians aren't the only ones benefiting, Schnur argues, no matter how much politicians are making during the appearances, nor the extent to which they're using the opportunities to manipulate their public images.

"If the speech is open to news coverage, it's open to the public," he said. "Voters get to hear the potential candidate talking on the issues for the day."

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