Clinton takes to the road in a van called Scooby to show she’s not out of touch

Focus of campaign will be to engage voters and be the champion of everyday Americans

Chris Learn, a 19-year-old student, could hardly believe what he was seeing when the former secretary of state and newly declared presidential candidate Hillary Clinton rolled up in a small van on Sunday with campaign workers at a petrol station.

“I knew it was her immediately,” he told CNN. “I just saw her and I was like, there’s no way that’s her.”

Learn said she greeted him and asked some questions.

Huma Abedin, Clinton’s chief of staff, said the van was Clinton’s idea and that “she’s been really excited about it since she came up with it”. A secret service agent was driving; the former first lady has not driven since 1996.

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Clinton has nicknamed the van "Scooby" after the Mystery Machine from the 1970s classic cartoon Scooby-Doo. It is taking her on her roadtrip from New York, where Sunday's woman-of-the-people video was released announcing her second bid for the presidency, to Iowa, home of the country's first presidential caucuses.

Loaded the van

On Sunday night, the 67-year-old posted a photo on social media website Twitter posing with a family of four, saying she had “loaded the van” and “met a great family when we stopped this afternoon”.

Hillary is on message and the message is clear: the woman who has travelled in security-driven motorcades for most of her adult life wants to show she can engage with voters and be the “champion” of everyday Americans. Yes, even Hillary Clinton needs to stop for petrol.

Sunday’s smartly-produced announcement video sets the tone: Clinton appears only in the final third, leaving everyday Americans to talk about life-changing events they are getting ready for. Then she appears, announcing she too is getting ready – to run for president again.

“I’m hitting the road to earn your vote,” she says.

Clinton is trying to tackle head-on accusations from critics that she is out of touch and that, with her celebrity status, she has a sense of entitlement. She is trying to burst the perception that, without a serious challenger for the Democratic nomination, this is a coronation for her. "We are going to fight for every single vote," Clinton's campaign manager Robby Mook told senators in a conference call on Sunday. "That will be the focus of absolutely everything we do."

The van, the road trip, the message are all a far cry from Clinton’s ill-fated 2008 campaign, when she embarked on a blitz through Iowa in a chartered helicopter, dubbed the “Hill-o-copter” by the media.

The helicopter was emblematic of her 2008 campaign. She spent heavily early, flying in from above, and was left short as the contest heated up. She never recovered from her third-place finish in Iowa behind Barack Obama and former senator John Edwards.

This time, the strategy is different. The “it’s-all-about-you, not-about-me” campaign is a go-slow, go-local approach to show voters she expects nothing from them, and that she is willing to work, and listen.

Her campaign team has tried to humanise her too, painting her in a softer light as a new grandmother to baby Charlotte (Chelsea’s daughter) and revealing more about her personal life, with family photographs dominating the biography page of her website.

Today, after the 1,000-mile journey from her home in the New York suburbs to Iowa, the former senator will appear at a community college in Monticello, a small country town with a population of about 4,000, to speak to students and teachers. She will visit a small business in Norwalk, Iowa, a population of about 9,600, tomorrow. Her team has said she will “ramp up” her campaign over the next six to eight weeks and won’t hold her first major rally until next month.

The other big difference between 2008 and 2016 is foreign policy. Eight years ago Clinton spoke in her announcement video message about ending the war in Iraq (even though she voted for it). Despite her prolific travel as secretary of state from 2009 to 2013, there was no reference to foreign policy in Sunday's video. This will be the biggest stick Republicans will try to beat her with, so it's not a surprise the video didn't touch on it. This time growing economic inequality is the issue.

Another stick will be swung by Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American senator from Florida. Yesterday, he became the third Republican to officially enter the race with a big set-piece announcement in Miami.

At 43, he has cast himself as a forward-looking leader in contrast to Mrs Clinton’s last-century policies. Identified by husband Bill as one of the bigger threats to his wife’s ambitions, Rubio’s generational gambit will be another front for her to fight, starting now with some high-intensity listening and heartfelt flesh-pressing on the ground in Iowa.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent