PHILADELPHIA – One of Hillary Clinton's biggest challenges as she weighs another presidential bid: time.
If she runs in 2016, there will be 45 long months, nearly four years, between Election Day and her departure as secretary of State with a favorability rating in the mid-60s. Not since Ronald Reagan has a successful presidential candidate been out of public office for years before winning the White House, and that was long before the Internet opened the door to instantaneous attacks and counter-attacks. In Clinton's seven months as a private citizen, the no-holds-barred scrutiny has shown no sign of letting up, covering everything from her oversight of the attacks in Benghazi to her tin-eared post on Twitter last week about swimmer Diana Nyad amid a Syria-crazed news cycle.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, another closely surveilled potential contender in 2016, mocked the feeding frenzy Tuesday night when he presented Clinton with the "Liberty Medal" award from the National Constitution Center. "Secretary Clinton is out of office. So am I. I'm not sure what people expect will happen here tonight."
Mutually assured (electoral) destruction?
Perhaps another time. On Tuesday, in front of a bipartisan audience along Independence Mall, Clinton reiterated her support for military action against the Syrian government, despite opposition from six out of 10 Americans. No one knows better than Clinton, haunted in the 2008 Democratic primary by her 2002 vote for the war in Iraq, how the past can become prologue. Possible Republican challengers in 2016, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, oppose military strikes. Presumably, a Democratic challenge coming from her left – Are you listening Martin O'Malley? Of course you are! -- would be opposed to military action as well.
"We really don't know how this is going to play out, and it is a huge risk politically, but she does what she thinks is right in the moment and the politics will follow," said Democratic consultant Maria Cardona, who worked on Clinton's last campaign. "She probably took that last poll as secretary of State and framed it, knowing that she will never see those numbers again. Once you start living in the political cycle, your numbers come back to earth."
Clinton can control her public profile to some extent, though both supporters and detractors acknowledge that there would be constant nitpicking even if she tried to keep quiet. On record in support of arming rebels fighting the Syrian government while at the State Department, it would have been hard for her to keep mum during the current crisis.
She has more leeway, however, when it comes to other public appearances, and on Tuesday, she found herself in an awkward spot: giving a speech just an hour before President Obama addressed Syria's use of chemical weapons on national television. That her remarks had once been billed as a policy speech on a controversial topic – the balance between national security and civil liberties – ensured that the politics would overpower her remarks.
Sure enough, a conservative super PAC, America Rising, pre-empted her speech with an e-mail blast attacking her record on security and privacy issues that was picked up by a television network's web site. No matter that she ended up giving a non-partisan speech that promoted "active citizenship" and put military intervention in the context of American history.
"As a political opponent who is highly critical of her, if she wasn't saying anything, I'd be trying to smoke her out," said Tim Miller, an America Rising spokesman who has worked on Republican presidential campaigns and for the national party. "Her vulnerability is that she doing all of sorts of things that a candidate would do without the political machinery to protect her day in and day out."
Clinton could have been talking about her own inability to stay out of the public eye when she said Tuesday: "They knew that in a democracy, citizens cannot sit on the sidelines, that we have to get into the arena,' as Teddy Roosevelt called it, and participate in the debates that shape our country's future. Sometimes it can get pretty noisy, but that is the American way."
And in fact, the distracting shouts of protesters could be heard throughout her speech.
For different reasons, some Democratic operatives would also prefer her to be less visible. Every time the super PAC encouraging her campaign rolls out an endorsement, every time she gives a speech, she is offering fresh ammunition to her critics.
"Our supporters pay attention when Hillary makes a speech and every time she does they double down on their support for us and why we need to do all we can to stop Hillary," said Garrett Marquis, a spokesman for the Stop Hillary PAC, which he said has raised about $250,000 and collected thousands of signatures. "There's no doubt that when she puts herself in the spotlight, it's an opportunity for us to communicate our message."
On the flip side, the Clinton-loving dignitaries invited to the ceremony at the National Constitution Center didn't restrain themselves either. "Some of us can't wait to celebrate the first woman president of the United States," gushed University of Pennsylvania President Amy Guttman. Another pre-endorsement came from Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter: "I fully expect she will break another barrier in four years."
There are advantages to a long run-up to a potential campaign. Clinton can raise the visibility of her family's philanthropic foundation. She can make money, reportedly as much as $200,000 per speaking engagement. People are also making money off her name, such as the consultants already receiving tens of thousands of dollars from the Ready for Hillary super PAC.
The group has signed up more than 850,000 supporters, a grassroots army that's ready to march as soon as she gives the signal. Spokesman Seth Bringman dismissed the idea that the PAC bestows a dangerous aura of inevitability.
"You'd have to speak to the attackers about why they are spending all day, every day, 3.5 years out from an election attacking someone who hasn't even said if she's running," Bringman said. "Ready for Hillary is focused on building a positive grassroots movement encouraging her to run."
Just as Clinton knows the dangers of supporting an unpopular war, she knows the perils that come with being the frontrunner. And this time, should she run, she would have to sustain the momentum for much longer.
"Being elevated to frontrunner status is a heavy burden she has to carry," said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, who has advised several presidential candidates. "That means opponents will throw the kitchen sink at every opportunity. That also means the charges will get pretty stale. We could even look back at this long period before her campaign and find that it was the best thing that ever happened to her."
Clinton is not the only potential candidate grappling with a long prequel. Just as there's more time for her to trip and for her poll numbers to fall, the same pitfalls face possible contenders like Rubio. Time magazine dubbed him "The Savior of the Republican Party" back in February, months before his leadership on immigration reform dented his standing with conservatives.
Howard Dean, the former Democratic National Committee chairman and presidential candidate, sees an upside for Clinton as a longstanding pre-candidate. When the Republican attacks go too far – as they did when one web site gave visitors the chance to "slap Hillary," they backfire. America Rising's research of Clinton's polling found that her numbers rise when voters feel sorry for her, as they did after a tense U.S. Senate debate in 2000 and when she teared up one day before the New Hampshire primary in 2008.
"The Republicans seem shrill and small and not ready for prime time," Dean said. "There's a good chance the party will nominate someone from their right wing in 2016, and she's the perfect counterpoint." By giving speeches from time to time, as she did earlier this week on wildlife trafficking and last month on voting rights, "she's continuing to remind the American people that she's an adult in the political arena," Dean added.
Trippi said the greater danger for Clinton is that the potentially first woman president doesn't get sandbagged as the establishment candidate, as she did in 2008 when Obama stole her history-making thunder. Tuesday night, she reminded people that neither she nor Obama would have been allowed to sign the Declaration of Independence, and she hailed the women's rights convention at Seneca Falls in 1848. Emily's List, the group that promotes female candidates who back abortion rights, has started a "Madam President" campaign that sets the right tone, Trippi said.
"What happened last time is that instead of running as a woman making history and leading on reform and change, she ran on her experience as a senator and First Lady, and she played into the status quo in a change election," he said. "I think she's probably learned that lesson."
If Trippi is right, perhaps Clinton's hiatus from public office will turn out to be her saving grace. But until then, there will be hard knocks.