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A Clinton in ‘transition’ keeps opponents and donors frozen

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Hillary Clinton left the State Department nearly two months ago, but she still needs a staff to keep up with the considerable business of being Hillary Clinton. A half-dozen people now work for the former secretary of state and Democratic presidential candidate in a tiny corporate space on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, in what is called her "transition office."

Transition to what, Clinton and her aides have not yet said. But the question hovers over her every move and has frozen in place the very early — but for some potential candidates, very important — presidential maneuvering on the Democratic side.

Clinton’s post-government life is so new that she is barely off her State Department health care plan. The Iowa caucuses are at least 33 months away. But that has not dissuaded a network of former campaign staff members and volunteers from starting a political action committee, "Ready for Hillary," dedicated to what they hope will be her 2016 run.

Nor has it stopped major polling outfits like the one at Quinnipiac University from seeing how she would do in a presidential contest against two Republican contenders from Florida, former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio. In a Quinnipiac poll conducted two weeks ago, Clinton thrashed both by 11 percentage points in their home state.

Nor has it kept advisers to some of her potential Democratic rivals from seeking out the smallest of clues to divine her intentions: Was she "chilly" to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York at the Memorial Day parade in Chappaqua last spring? Could she possibly run for president when she is buying a vacation house in the Hamptons? (Aides said reports that she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, were looking for multimillion-dollar summer properties at the swell end of Long Island were, in fact, inaccurate.)

Adding to her rivals’ anxiety, a new report emerges almost weekly from a Democratic dinner party in New York or Washington that Important So-and-So heard from Still-More-Important So-and-So that she is absolutely, positively running — only to draw swift rebuttals from her representatives that she has decided nothing of the sort.

"There’s this kind of, ‘I’m telling you a secret that she told me secretly,’ but there’s no secret to tell," said Clinton’s longtime communications aide, Philippe Reines. "Everyone’s gotten way ahead of themselves, and most importantly, they have gotten way ahead of her."

Venting the frustration of all veterans of Clinton politics and the intrigue that constantly surrounds them, he added, "What’s that acronym, WYSIWYG? What you see is what you get."

Friends and major donors insist that Clinton is sincere in expressing ambivalence about seeking the presidency again, and they go so far as to assert that she is simply happy to have time to clean out her closets for the first time in decades.

Bill Clinton, ever the campaigner, has indicated that he is bullish on a run by his wife. Others are urging her to hurry up lest she find the most coveted party donors committed to a potential rival like Vice President Joe Biden.

When asked if Clinton’s decision would affect Biden’s own deliberations about the race, Biden’s longtime strategist, Joe Slade White, answered, "Of course it would." But, he said, "That doesn’t mean it would make him not do it."

But others say Clinton has plenty of time, especially since she is doing just enough to keep potential supporters at the edge of their seats (Exhibit A: her video for the Human Rights Campaign supporting same-sex marriage two weeks ago).

Those who are most connected to her exhaustive network of political financiers — some of whom remained in her orbit with plum invitations to official diplomatic soirees — say its most important members will make no move until she gives the signal.

"I’ve talked to a number of donors who are willing to write whatever they’re permitted to write to a presidential campaign, and certainly to write very big money to any sort of super PAC that would be supportive of her," said Harold M. Ickes, a senior adviser to Clinton’s 2008 campaign and the president last year of the super PAC that supported President Barack Obama, Priorities USA Action. "They’re just saying to me, ‘Whenever she’s ready, we’re ready."’

Age and health will be considerations. Clinton will turn 69 in 2016, and she is described as being uncertain of whether she wants to face yet again the intense incoming fire that goes with running for high office.

Still, her closest political allies offer views about why she is more likely to run than not.

"I think she wants very much to see a woman president in her lifetime," Ickes said. "If you look at the landscape right now, there’s only one person who has a real shot at that."

For now, at least, Reines said that Clinton had more immediate matters at hand. Next month being Hillary Rodham Clinton will translate into a lucrative public speaking career with the Harry Walker Agency, which represents her husband, former Vice President Dick Cheney and Ehud Barak, a former Israeli prime minister, among many others.

Clinton’s first paid appearance will be on April 24 before the National Multi Housing Council in Dallas.

Although the Walker agency does not disclose speaking fees, someone of her stature commands six figures. Hillary Clinton’s 2011 financial disclosure form, filed last year, shows Bill Clinton making a high of $750,000 for a single speech, although he more typically receives $150,000 to $300,000. The Clintons reported assets and income upward of $14 million, meaning Hillary Clinton can easily afford the office space and personal staff she must now pay for out of her own pocket.

These days, Clinton is devoting much of her time to her next book, about her years in the State Department. She is also debating how best to continue her work on women’s issues, which she could do either through her husband’s foundation or one she may start on her own.

Those who most want her to run are heartened that she has not made a Shermanesque statement that she will not run in 2016. Among potential Democratic contenders, few would be more affected by Clinton’s decision than Cuomo, who shares many of her political donors. Strategists allied with both of them surmised that he would almost certainly give up any 2016 aspirations if Clinton were to decide to make a go of it.

For their part, Republicans are not going to wait to prepare.

At the annual gathering of the Conservative Political Action Committee this month, the group Citizens United again showed its anti-Clinton film, "Hillary, the Movie," which it described as having "everything you forgot and what you need to know about the would-be presidential candidate."

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