WASHINGTON — The challenge ahead for Hillary Rodham Clinton is one faced by few White House hopefuls: running a primary campaign in which she faces little competition, if any at all.
Still not officially a candidate, the former New York senator, secretary of state and first lady sits far atop early polls against a small field of potential rivals for the Democratic nomination. None of them seems to be in any hurry to move into the race.
Few Democrats see an insurgent candidate in the mold of Barack Obama on the horizon. That raises the potential of a pedestrian Democratic primary season with few televised debates and little of the drama expected from a crowded and likely combative race on the Republican side.
"No one wants a complete coronation, but it's hard to see who a credible challenger will be," said Steve Westly, a California-based fundraiser for Obama's campaigns who is supporting Clinton.
Clinton has been meeting in New York with a group of advisers that includes longtime loyalists and veterans of Obama's races. But the work of campaign planning involves trying to figure out when to get into the race, how to avoid giving off a sense of inevitability and how to generate enthusiasm among the party's base for the general election without the benefit of a spirited fight for the nomination.
"All indications are that she's casting a wide net, talking to smart people, and being methodical about thinking through her next steps," said Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist and Clinton ally. "And having run a presidential campaign, this is how you go about making this decision and next steps."
The first step? Deciding when to get into the race.
Clinton's timeline for announcing her candidacy remains a subject of debate inside her team, according to Democrats familiar with the discussions.
Some advisers are pushing the possibility of a springtime announcement. Others suggest she could wait until the summer, giving her team more time to get ready.
Some insiders note that her husband, Bill Clinton, did not launch his first presidential campaign until October 1991, a few months before the first primaries of the 1992 race.
In the already competitive Republican field, the aggressive moves of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush appear to have chased Mitt Romney into and out of the race.
But the potential Democratic competition is not putting any pressure on Clinton to move quickly.
Vice President Joe Biden has said he will not make a decision until the spring or the summer. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a liberal favorite, insists she's not running.
Others, such as ex-Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders are relatively unknown nationally and are not expected to decide until later in the spring.
Clinton appears in no rush. She has a limited number of public appearances in the coming months, leaving outside groups to fill the void.
Ready for Hillary, a pro-Clinton super political action committee, has a number of low-dollar fundraisers on the calendar, including an event in New York next month with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.
"The question is what advantage is the Clinton campaign giving up by not being active in Iowa as a candidate today? And I can't think of any," said Jerry Crawford, a Des Moines lawyer who served as Clinton's Midwest co-chairman in 2008.
Clinton has suggested one — the potential for voters to see her as entitled to the nomination. She was hurt by sky-high expectations in her last campaign and finished a disappointing third in Iowa's caucuses, sparking Obama's ascent.
"If I were to decide to pursue it, I would be working as hard as any underdog or any newcomer because I don't want to take anything for granted if I decide to do it," Clinton said in a June interview.
Clinton's main obstacles during a quiet primary campaign could come from Republicans and GOP-leaning outside groups, which already are trying to discredit her record at the State Department and tie her to Obama's policies.
Several Republicans took swipes at Clinton at an Iowa forum last weekend, as did Romney in a speech in Mississippi this past week.
"Hillary Clinton clearly feels she's entitled to the presidency and is taking the race for granted like she did in 2008," said Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, reflecting the GOP's intense focus on Clinton.
Such GOP criticism could rile her supporters. But a low-key primary could limit her campaign's ability to test its organizational strength and its opportunities to seize on important moments — a primary night, debate, major address — that often fuel online fundraising and list-building.
During the last contested Democratic campaign, the party's first presidential debate was held in South Carolina in April 2007 and the field went on to take part in more than two dozen such events. With no announced candidates, a springtime debate already appears unlikely.
Still, there are benefits to the lack of a challenge.
Even with Republicans as the main foil, a relatively uncontested primary would give Clinton a clear path to raise millions of dollars and build a campaign organization, a benefit normally bestowed to an incumbent president, and perhaps keep her above the political fray.
"I'm really excited for these next two years," said Neera Tanden, a former Clinton policy adviser who spoke at a Ready for Hillary event in Washington last week. "You know with any Clinton adventure, it's a roller coaster. It will be very exciting. And she's really going to need all of us to step up."
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