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Liberal activists warm to Hillary Clinton for president

In what some are saying could be a preview of 2016, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Hillary Clinton are showcasing their leadership skills at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in Chicago. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Hillary Clinton was absent from Netroots Nation, the largest gathering of liberal activists in the country, but when talking about 2016, no one was more present on the lips of attendees here than the former secretary of state.

“A lot of people are looking to Hillary Clinton right now,” said Alan Franklin, political director of Progress Now Colorado. He supported Barack Obama over Clinton in the 2008 primary and hopes Clinton, who is mulling another presidential run, will run again. “She’s arguably the most powerful woman in America. She’s set herself up for president well in 2016.”

What a difference a few years can make.

It was just six years ago, before many of these same activists, that Clinton was booed -- twice. They were largely angered by her support for the Iraq war, skeptical of her husband, Bill, who they viewed as a conservative Democratic president, and irritated with an insider campaign team they felt was largely dismissive of the burgeoning movement.

But times have changed. And progressives are ready to give her another shot. The war in Iraq is over, and the economy is the dominant issue; she has established herself as separate from her husband, and is viewed as more progressive; and much of the old political team does not appear to be in Clinton’s inner circle any longer.

And, of course, Clinton would be an historic candidate – the first woman president, following the first black president. What’s more, according to the polls, she gives Democrats the best chance to retain the White House.

“The fact that she makes 2016 uninteresting makes that attractive,” said Markos Moulitsas, founder of the popular blog Daily Kos. He added, “The reason I’m willing to give Hillary a pass is because the political climate today looks nothing like 2000. …  There’s a realization that she has evolved with the times.”

For Clinton, it has always been something of a love-hate relationship with the activist left.

“This might surprise some of you, but not everybody says nice things about me,” Clinton said to a wave a laughter in remarks at this conference in 2007 in Chicago when it was known as Yearly Kos, named after Moulitsas’ blog. “It is a burden I have to bear. Let me say something a little unexpected: Thank you.”

Progressive activists sympathized with her through her husband's high-profile Oval Office infidelity and cheered her when she became a U.S. Senator from New York. But in 2007, when she was also leading all the polls for the Democratic nomination, the Iraq war was the dominant issue in American politics, and she voted for it.

“A lot of it had to do with the war,” said Maureen Erwin, a Bay Area political consultant, who supported Obama in 2008, but is now excited by the possibility of a Clinton 2016 bid.

“I mean—Hillary,” she said with a smile when asked who she would want to run. “I would love Hillary and Elizabeth Warren, [the Massachusetts senator]. It would be awesome to have a woman president and vice president. … She did a great job as secretary of state. As a woman, she has broken so many glass ceilings.”

“The obvious – I’m a woman,” said Wendy Wendlandt, acting director of Fair Share. She was a Clinton supporter in 2008. “Having a woman president would be great in my lifetime. I’ve always liked her.”

“She’s showed really to the public that she’s not just a smart wife, but someone extremely capable in her own right,” said Lisa Kermish, from Oakland, Calif., vice president of the University Professional and Technical Employees union.

And it wasn’t just women who felt that way.

“I’m all about making history,” Franklin said.

“We’re long past due to have a woman president,” Ray Seaman, online director for Progress Florida and a 2008 Obama supporter said, “and Hillary would be a great example.”

Many here also cited Clinton’s toughness. In an era when many progressives have been frustrated by Republicans who obstruct anything Obama, they would welcome some of Clinton's fire, as opposed to Obama’s always-cool approach.

“Hillary’s always been fantastic at fighting Republicans,” said Jim Dean, chairman of the advocacy group Democracy For America, and brother of ex-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. “She’s a fighter, she’s tough as nails.”

“She would be a in a lot of ways a continuation of Obama’s policies, but be better at aggressively going at Republicans,” said Michael Thome, a blogger at Daily Kos.

At this conference six years ago in Chicago -- in the opening stages of the presidential election -- Clinton rankled progressives.

Unlike the other candidates, including Barack Obama, she declined to participate in breakout sessions that gave the bloggers more access. When that was announced, Clinton – the “establishment” candidate -- was booed. The boo birds rang out again when she did the unthinkable for many activists -- she defended lobbyists.

“A lot of those lobbyists, whether you like it or not, represent real Americans,” Clinton shot back at a questioner.

“I was here when she was booed,” said Thome, who has attended all eight conferences. “It was more some of the things she said that were off target rather her being booed. … Every time she ran, I wanted someone else,” but “she would be a very capable president. She’s a very capable person.”

This time around, Clinton’s seen as “cooler” and more open to the online community, many said. She has embraced her online persona, including the edgy “Texts from Hillary” Tumblr page that depicts her as a too-cool-for-school, world-traveling secretary of state firing off better-than-you texts to everyone from Obama to Sarah Palin.

Clinton even gave a hat tip to the creators of the page and Twitter feed in her maiden Tweet, something many here say the 2008 campaign team would have never done.

“She’s been great since,” Moulitsas said, “a great team player with Obama, and Mark Penn is retired from politics.”

Penn was Clinton’s pollster and senior adviser in 2008. Activists here complained that Penn and others on Team Clinton never cared to establish good relationships with them.

“To some extent, Mark Penn was the problem,” said Charles Chamberlain, the incoming executive director of Democracy For America. “But she’s a workhorse.”

The bitter 2008 Democratic primary seemed like ancient history here. Many cited her graceful exit from the race, her immediate support for Obama, and her work as secretary of state as reasons for their newfound affection for Hillary.

“The thing that impressed Obama supporters about Hillary is that she got right behind him after the primary,” said Seaman.

“That healed a lot of wounds,” Franklin added.

But, three years out from the next presidential election and not everyone’s ready to jump on board the Clinton train -- just yet anyway.

“I’m liking Hillary more since she was secretary of state. She was a responsible, smart politico,” Kermish said, before adding, “I want to see who else is out there.”

Many in the Netroots crowd are taking a wait-and-see approach, holding out hope that another, more progressive candidate will emerge, because they still view Clinton as a hawk; that even though she has evolved on some issues, like gay marriage, they would like her to speak out on economic issues – protect Social Security, Medicare, and forcefully about the banks the way Warren has; and they’re not keen on dynasty.

“I like her, but I don’t know,” Susan McTigue, of Manhattan Beach, Calif., said. “I hate the idea that it was Bush-Bush-Clinton-another guy-now maybe a Clinton again? I don’t want a monarchy. She’s a very strong, especially on women’s issues. I just find her too hawkish. More than half the country’s women… can’t we find somebody else? I’d rather have a more progressive candidate than a woman.”

Anne Moore, who happens to be the sister of filmmaker Michael Moore, was close to echoing the 2008 “Anybody But Hillary” crowd.

“She’s a hawk,” Moore said. “She has no stand on the issue I care most about, which is climate change. I would want Elizabeth Warren.”

But what if it were Clinton against a Republican?

“If it were between her and a Republican, I’d vote for her,” McTigue said.

“Of course,” Moore said, “I have to vote for her, if she runs.”

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