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Clinton Hosts Iowans

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) is planning to play host to a group of Iowans at her home in Northwest Washington, a move that further stokes speculation about her interest in a 2008 presidential bid.

The dinner, a fundraiser for her 2006 Senate campaign, is one of several events she has held that brings in out-of-state donors to D.C., said Ann Lewis, the head of Clinton’s Friends of Hillary political action committee.

“There are people in some states who want to not just contribute, but also spend time with her,” Lewis said. “It is one thing that we have found that people enjoy.”

Clinton did a similar event with Boston donors March 16, which was organized by philanthropist Barbara Lee. The Senator also hosted a group of California contributors at her home, a fundraiser put on by Esprit clothing co-founder Susie Tomkins Buell.

Asked about whether the goal of the Iowa dinner was to establish relationships in the pivotal early-caucus state, Lewis said only: “The purpose is to raise funds for 2006.”

But others familiar with the early planning stages of the fundraiser said that Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses were likely to be discussed as well.

“I’m sure 2006 will be on the agenda,” one Democratic consultant said. “And I am also sure the conversations will meander over to the caucuses as well.”

The discussion agenda aside, Clinton’s decision to host a group of Iowa donors at her home piqued the interest of several would-be challengers and party strategists.

“Anybody who brings a bunch of Iowans to Washington is clearly thinking about running for president,” said one high-level party strategist not affiliated with any campaign.

“It is a sign of her political strength in this race that people from Iowa would fly to her house in Washington,” the source added. “She has a star appeal that the other [candidates] don’t have.”

Clinton is widely seen as the early frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in 2008. As such, every detail of her political life is examined under a microscope.

Perhaps as a result of such intense scrutiny, Clinton has refused to speculate on a possible future bid for national office, insisting that she is focused on winning re-election to a second term next November.

Most top-tier Republicans have dropped out of the Senate race. The potential challenger now receiving the most attention is Ed Cox, son-in-law of the late President Richard Nixon. Cox is expected to form an exploratory committee in June.

Clinton’s message discipline has seeped down to her top aides and close confidantes, all of whom resist speaking publicly or even privately with the media about the potential presidential race.

“We take the 2006 race very seriously,” Lewis said. “That is why she is out there raising the funds she is going to need.”

With the other would-be presidential candidates jockeying to be the anti-Hillary, the New York Senator has largely avoided making any obvious moves to court key constituencies — especially those in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Some of her potential rivals have been less secretive about their interest.

Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh recently conducted focus groups in the Hawkeye State to gauge the appeal of a candidate, such as himself, who has a lower national profile than Clinton or Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.

Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, the party’s vice presidential nominee in 2004, spent two days in Iowa in late March and has also visited New Hampshire since the last election.

Though three proposals to reform the presidential primary schedule have been submitted to a Democratic National Committee commission, Iowa and New Hampshire seem likely to remain the first two proving grounds for would-be national candidates in 2008. Two of the three proposals would preserve the states’ traditional roles.

To date, Clinton has focused her attention on fundraising for 2006, bringing in nearly $4 million in the first three months of this year and banking more than $8.7 million at the end of March.

Clinton’s aggressive fundraising serves a dual purpose: It discourages serious GOP opponents from challenging her in 2006 and allows her to stockpile funds for 2008. That’s because federal election law allows Clinton to transfer the leftover funds in her Senate campaign account directly to a presidential effort.

Given her national fundraising prowess, one Democratic strategist dismissed the Clinton camp’s defense that the event was aimed simply at gathering dollars for 2006, noting that Iowa is not a state that produces large numbers of donors.

In the first three months of the 2006 campaign cycle, Clinton had received just three contributions of more than $200 from Iowans, totaling $1,000, according to Political Money Line.

Last cycle, Clinton received more than $40,000 from Iowa donors — a relatively small amount.

“Iowa’s export is politics, not money,” the source said.

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