It has been only three weeks since Hillary Rodham Clinton declared her candidacy for the White House, but she already looks more confident than she did during the almost 17 months of her last campaign.
Sure, no serious rival has yet emerged to get under her skin the way Barack Obama did in 2008. But Clinton and her team have also shown a determination not to be thrown off course: not by the blowback on her use of personal email while at the State Department, not by reports critical of the Clinton Foundation, nor by congressional investigations of the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya.
Such flare-ups used to make Clinton go cold and cautious. Now, she is projecting a scandals-be-damned attitude and barreling ahead with her agenda. In Las Vegas on Tuesday, she was unafraid to court controversy on an issue dear to her — families and children — by saying that she would go beyond Obama’s executive action on immigration and try to protect tens of thousands of parents who are still facing deportation.
It was a vivid contrast to a low point in 2007, at a Democratic primary debate, when she avoided taking a clear stand on an issue that was similarly divisive among voters: driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.
Clinton’s embrace of citizenship for many illegal immigrants, bold executive action and even those driver’s licenses, which she endorsed recently, will allow her to play offense against Republican candidates who are divided on immigration.
What she does not say is that she used to side with many Republicans on some cultural and social issues. She now sees a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, for instance, after years of saying that marriage was only between a man and a woman.
It is not every day that a lawyer like Clinton discovers a new constitutional protection, but Democratic primary voters increasingly favor same-sex marriage — and she is determined to catch up with them.
It may be early to jump to any "Hillary unbound" conclusions, and she has yet to engage in any freewheeling back and forth with reporters. But from her full-throated speech last week about ending mass incarceration to her bullish decision Wednesday to court donors for a super PAC, Clinton has shown a new willingness to take stands that turn off some voters or interest groups.
This is a meaningful development. Clinton twisted herself into knots during her last campaign when trying to mollify Democrats over her Iraq war vote without admitting any fault. After spending 2007 and 2008 refusing to apologize for events in Iraq, she now seems increasingly capable of saying what liberals want to hear.
"We are seeing a bolder and more confident candidate this time out," said Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic strategist who worked on Clinton’s first presidential bid. "As a result, I think voters are getting a much better look at the real Hillary Clinton."
He continued, "At a similar point eight years ago, the mindset of the Clinton campaign was to be cautious and avoid rocking the boat."
Clinton’s advisers, who were sometimes accused of overkill in defending her in the 2008 contest, are fighting back against opponents with a new tone and style intended to appear eminently reasonable.
Her lawyers are trying to strike a compromise with Rep. Trey Gowdy, the Republican from South Carolina who is leading an investigation of the Benghazi attacks, to have her testify in public. A Clinton spokesman, Brian Fallon, appeared this week in a campaign video adopting a genial, Wally Cleaver manner as he attempted to eviscerate the new book "Clinton Cash" and the credibility of its author, Peter Schweizer.
The steadier hand is particularly noticeable to old Obama aides, who recall Clinton as a more tactical than strategic-minded opponent in 2008.
"Her presidential campaign seems a lot less distracted by the day-to-day news stories than it was in 2008," said Bill Burton, who was the press secretary for Obama’s first presidential campaign. "That means her ability to project a clear-eyed focus on the American people is a lot more effective."
Her near-term strategy, in the view of some Republicans and political analysts, is to catch up with the steady migration of many Democratic primary voters to the left wing of their party.
"Secretary Clinton has always run the campaign that she has politically calculated is the most advantageous for her at the time," said Tim Miller, a spokesman for Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and a likely Republican candidate. "She’s making a tactical choice that her best chance at winning is to protect her left flank from a challenge and run a divisive general election campaign."
New opinion polls this week suggested Clinton’s approach is working, especially among Democrats. Americans now view her more favorably than they did earlier this year, despite weeks of critical reports about her use of personal email and about donations to the Clinton Foundation, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll. Four out of 5 Democrats say she is honest and trustworthy, and that she shares the values most Americans try to live by.
One important challenge will be following up on her rhetoric with policy details. After Clinton’s remarks on immigration in Las Vegas, the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, said Obama had used "as much authority as he could" to help parents and others facing deportation, and appeared at a loss about what more Clinton might do.
Clinton advisers said Wednesday that she wanted to try an additional approach of providing a new application process for some parents who are illegal immigrants to pursue a path toward citizenship.
It remains to be seen how this would work in practice and what positions Clinton will take on complex economic issues that she has barely begun to tackle. But her allies in the Democratic Party seem grateful to have so much now on which to agree with her.
"My sense is that she rightfully perceives a much better political landscape for her today than eight years ago," said Carter Eskew, a Democratic political consultant who is not involved with her campaign.
"Then, voters were looking for a clean break from President Bush, and she carried the burden of voting for the Iraq war," he continued. "In this cycle, voters seem to be much more focused on candidates with confidence, experience and perceived ability to get things done — which have always been her greatest strengths. Unless Republicans crack those, they may find running against her very frustrating."