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Waiting for Hillary

In the months since her departure from the Obama administration, Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, senator, and first lady, has kept a remarkably low profile: She saw a play. She  decided to write a memoir. She announced her support for same-sex marriage. And Tuesday night, she'll deliver remarks at the 2013 Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards in Washington. But it's what she hasn't done that continues to keep political spectators waiting with baited breath: Every day that Clinton declines to announce her political intentions -- or lack thereof -- is another day Democrats far and wide remain frozen in anticipation about the party's prospects for 2016.

"We're in a little bit of a state of suspended animation, I think, because of her looming presence," said Democratic strategist and two-time Joe Biden campaign adviser Larry Rasky. "People may have to wait for the dust to settle."

Setting the pace

Given that the next presidential is a nearly four years away, no person, Democrat or Republican, has actually announced a presidential bid so far. But that doesn't mean talks aren't taking place behind the scenes. As CBS News reported last month, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has already had a couple of meetings on the subject; and it's not uncommon to expect future presidential hopefuls -- particularly the up-and-comers, who have a longer ladder to climb than some of their more seasoned peers -- might be making early moves to gin up support.

"If you're a challenger like [Maryland Gov. Martin] O'Malley or [New York Gov. Andrew] Cuomo, you really need to be active now," said veteran Democratic strategist Tad Devine, who advised Al Gore and John Kerry in their presidential bids. "You need to be lining up fundraising support, most importantly, but you also have to be figuring out a strategy, a message, and figuring out how you're going to be navigating the early states like Iowa and New Hampshire. If you're not doing that yet, you're behind the curve."

For many potential challengers -- for example, a locally popular but relatively obscure governor -- it would be task enough to face Vice President Joe Biden in an open challenge for the 2016 presidential nomination: Like many VPs before him, Biden is popular, politically well-connected, experienced, and bears the gravitas often bestowed to those who spend eight years being the president's number two. If Clinton gets in, the challenges will multiply: In addition to her sky-high ratings as secretary of state, she has a rich and loyal network of donors; she's proven her salt as a presidential candidate, and she'd be running to be the first woman presidential nominee in a party dominated by women.

"These things tend to tier. There's the top tier and then there's the middle and sometimes the bottom," said Devine. "I think clearly Hillary is the leading candidate, and the only one who can approach her and potentially make it into the top tier would be the vice president. I think the others either are going to be second- or third-tier depending on how much support they have, or how much money they can raise, or things of that nature. So that's kind of where it begins."

Frozen assets

The problem with being a "second- or third-tier" candidate is that lining up concrete support can be easier said than done -- particularly when his or her party's major donors and political operatives are holding their breaths waiting for someone who may or may not jump in.

"If you're trying to put together a presidential campaign on the basis of support -- both political support and fundraising support -- now, at a pretty early juncture, you need people who are committed to you," said Devine. "You need people who will go out and raise money for you from their own networks. And to have someone like Hillary looming out there, stops the movement of people - both fundraising people and political people - towards potential challengers."

Those top establishment figures, he says, have little incentive to get in early for a long-shot candidate when there's a chance someone else -- someone who has proven, actually, to have a pretty good shot, could enter at any moment - thus making their support all but irrelevant.

"With Hillary there the incentive to move to another candidate is very low, because the likelihood of her winning is very high. And these political people, who make those judgments, the fundraising people, the elected officials, the activists in Iowa and New Hampshire, they don't want to bet on the wrong candidate," Devine said.

"You can't ignore the fact that if you're either the Democratic donor or a state rep. in Iowa, you're going to sort of scratch your head if anybody else comes calling," added Rasky.

In the words of former South Carolina Governor Jim Hodges, a veteran politico who helps connect prospective Democratic candidates with the early presidential primary state's top donors and political actors, the pool of support from which to tap right now isn't just shallow: "It's frozen," he says. "In a lot of ways it feels the field, particularly those candidates who are better known, are hesitant to taking action while she's making her mind up."

No one seems to know exactly the sort of timetable under which Clinton is operating, other than to say it's a pretty generous one.

"She probably has a very long time to decide whether or not she's going to run," said Mike Stratton, a Democratic political consultant, who is also a friend and supporter of O'Malley's. "She uniquely has the ability to get tanned, rested and ready."

Vying for second - or third - place

Clinton may be a likely -- and potentially formidable -- candidate for 2016, but that doesn't mean her less prospective prominent rivals should just sit around twiddling their thumbs until she announces her choice, says Hodges. Sure, they may not be able to line up the kind of money one would need to launch a serious presidential bid, but they can probably rustle together enough cash to beef up their credentials and boost their national profiles.

"There are a lot of things that can happen between now and filing day that could cause Hillary Clinton to decide not to run," he said. "All of these would-be candidates have to operate under the theory that she's not going to run as of now."

For the moment, he says, that means forming relationships with fundraising networks and the major players in early primary states - even if they can't "tap into" that network until down the line.

"There are lots of things you can do," said Devine. "You may not convert somebody in Iowa and New Hampshire but you can meet them. You can impress them, you can line them up and get them ready, and you can do the same with fundraising people: Warm them up, get them on your side, build relationships with them, and if the opening comes -- either because she doesn't run or because she stumbles -- then that investment will have been worthwhile."

Too soon to say?

Regardless of when Clinton makes her decision, representatives for other possible Democratic contenders suggest it's way too early for them to be concerned about any of the potential consequences of a delay.

"Governor O'Malley's focus is on getting results for the people of Maryland, not on fundraising," said Lis Smith, an adviser for the Maryland governor, in an email. "That's evident with the productive legislative session that he's having."

Laura Dhooge, political director of Deval Patrick's TogetherPAC, echoed that sentiment in a statement to CBS: "Governor Patrick is entirely focused on an ambitious growth agenda here in Massachusetts focused on education and transportation to ensure that the Commonwealth is fulfilling its generational responsibility to invest in our future," she said.

Dhooge said TogetherPAC "continues to raise some funds to accommodate political needs as they arise," but that doesn't appear to be a major focus at the moment: As of the end of 2012, his PAC had $512,303 cash on hand, according to FEC filings. O'Malley's PAC had $28,550 on hand at the end of 2012,according to FEC filings, and Smith said he hasn't been fundraising during session.

Ray Buckley, the chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, agrees that it's premature to assume that any other candidates would now be pounding the pavement up in New Hampshire were only Clinton officially out of the game.

"I think many folks have created a mental first, second, third, fourth choice list -- even those who are fervent Hillary supporters who would rather see her president than probably take another breath," he said. 

But it's not like everyone's dying to lock down a candidate tomorrow.

"In 2005, the only person who was even mildly engaging folks in New Hampshire was John Edwards," he said. Clinton didn't show up there until March of 2007 -- the first time she'd visited the state since 1995, he says -- and she still managed a win. "There's not an expectation, I don't think, from New Hampshire or Iowa or South Carolina, that people are full-blown running right now."

Biden's not likely hanging out by the phone for Clinton's decision, either, according to Rasky.

"I don't think he's sitting around waiting for her to decide," he said. "I don't think he thinks he needs permission from anybody."

Rasky, who was communications director for Biden in his 2008 presidential bid and also worked on his bid in 1988, says he hasn't been involved in any formal campaign meetings with the VP, and that he "would doubt" any have occurred.

"I think he's going to do what he would be normally be doing as vice presidential incumbent, which is helping candidates in 2014, and really doing his job as vice president," he said. "Those are the logical things for him to be doing under any circumstances right now."

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