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Hillary Clinton's test campaign gets under way

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Media captionHillary Clinton says she will make a final decision on whether to run for president by the end of this year

More than two years remain until the next presidential election, but Hillary Clinton cannot escape the question about whether she will run.

The frenzy started two years ago, when she was still at the state department.

Her new book Hard Choices, out on Tuesday, focuses on her years as secretary of state, but only adds to the speculation and fever about a potential run.

In a downtown Chicago bar, the Ready for Hillary movement is in full swing.

With music and drinks, the political group known as a Super Pac (for political action committee) is urging Mrs Clinton to run for president in 2016.

And across the country, they're laying the groundwork for her candidacy. (Mrs Clinton is not formally affiliated with the group).

They're fundraising too. For $20.16 (hint, hint) supporters can mingle with politicians and senators. They have no doubt she will run and some are convinced she will win too, becoming America's first woman president.

But this is a presidential campaign without a presidential candidate at the moment.

And while everybody waits for Ms Clinton to make up her mind, no other Democratic contenders are really making a serious pitch for the party nomination yet, leading to criticism that she's frozen the field.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mrs Clinton's memoir chronicles her tenure at the US state department

In her first interview on ABC News to publicise the book, Ms Clinton said other candidates should do what feels right for them, adding that she would make a decision "when it feels right for me to decide".

But in the Democratic Party, few seem to be able to fathom she won't run.

"I don't know that there is an alternative scenario that I've even thought about," said Illinois' Democratic Senator Dick Durbin at the Chicago event.

"We want her to know she is our first choice, we hope she says yes and we are ready to go. Hillary is our best standard bearer for the race."

Mrs Clinton's book tour is seen as a not-so-subtle pre-campaign effort to test the waters and reconnect with voters after her years at the state department, out of domestic politics.

Even Republicans admit Mrs Clinton will be a formidable candidate and opponent. The party is already focused almost full-time on tearing her record as secretary of state apart, but also getting ready to go years back in search of anything that hasn't been uncovered yet or that could be seen in a different light.

Sean Spicer, the communications director at the Republican National Committee, said there were still a lot of unknowns about Mrs Clinton.

"We need to do everything we can to make people understand that there is another side, that this book isn't just about Hard Choices, it was about bad choices," said Mr Spicer.

"And we want to make sure that as she's out there test-driving her campaign, that we tell people there is another side... a host of policy failures."

The former first lady has never been this popular. Her time out of politics worked to her benefit as she remained out of the fray, though the poll ratings have dipped since she left the state department.

But her critics and detractors are still out there, perhaps even more virulent than in 2008 because her chances of winning if she does run are higher than last time.

Some of the attacks, about her health and whether she suffered brain damage following a concussion in 2012, for example, are a precursor to the vitriol ahead.

Few if any other candidate in American history seemed to inspire such anger and the cottage industry to go along.

"The reality is that Hillary Clinton is part of the liberal Clinton machine. There are three words there - liberal, Clinton, machine - and that scares a lot of people in America," said Garret Marquis, the national spokesperson for the Stop Hillary campaign.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mrs Clinton's poll ratings have dipped - but only slightly- since she left her post as secretary of state in 2013

"And it's something that's been a divisive force for politics for 20 years in America," he added. "Hillary Clinton is a continuation of Barack Obama, she's a continuation of these liberal policies that are, frankly, destructing America. They are destructing America at home and abroad."

The reasons for Mrs Clinton to run are plentiful in the eyes of her supporters, from becoming the first woman president to pursuing domestic agenda issues that are dear to her or putting forward her vision for American global leadership.

But the ugliness of the political attacks and the gruelling schedule of the campaign will weigh on her decision-making process.

"When people ask me if I want her to run, I say yes as an American, I want her to run. But as someone who knows her and cares about her, I'm not so sure," said Lissa Muscatine, a long-time friend and former speechwriter who now runs an independent bookstore in Washington.

"She hasn't even announced that she's running and we've already seen the attacks start on the other side," she added. "And they're clearly going to be nasty and they're clearly going to get worse and she has an extremely thick skin. But how much of this do you want to subject yourself to?"

For now Mrs Clinton is continuing with her soft campaign, speaking at events across the country, giving interviews about her book, and dodging questions about a presidential run.

She is clearly revelling in the attention and as her book tour goes on and the next mid-term elections kick off, she will become more and more visible on the national stage.

Her challenge will be to pace herself and maintain the momentum until she's ready to make an announcement.

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