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Clinton's New York speech: believers, skeptics and gatecrashers

Hillary Clinton delivered her campaign "kickoff" speech in New York on Saturday. But as DW's Richard Walker found out, it wasn't just supporters who showed up to listen.

Gatecrashers are usually a sign of a good party, so perhaps Hillary Clinton would have been flattered to find a small group of Republican operatives had wangled their way into her crowd. They watched from the sidelines as true believers swarmed around Hillary, Bill and Chelsea.

Fresh-faced Raffi Williams was eager to talk. "Hillary Clinton can't erase the past 30 years of public life. Americans want to know about her shady foreign donors, the email scandals," he said. All things you would expect to hear from an on-message Republican staffer.

Only when googling him later did I realize this was more than just guerrilla activism: Raffi Williams turned out to be no less than the deputy press secretary for the Republican National Committee - a rising star in his party, sent on an undercover mission.

It was a sign of how seriously the Republicans are taking Hillary Clinton, treating her as the Democratic nominee long before her own party can. And yet her campaign is widely seen as having got off to a slow start in the two months since it launched with a video on social media. The Roosevelt Park speech was billed as a "kickoff," but to many it looked more like a "relaunch."

USA Hillary Clinton Präsidentschaftskandidatin

Clinton's speech attracted a big, and divided, crowd

A chance and a champion

Above all, the speech sought to tackle the sense that Clinton had failed to explain why she even wanted to be president - beyond the fact that it was simply "her turn" to run.

She set out a distinctly personal motivation, framed around stories of her mother. "My mother taught me that everybody needs a chance and a champion," she said. "She knew what it was like not to have either one. Her own parents abandoned her, and by 14 she was out on her own, working as a housemaid."

Clinton's pitch: she wanted to be that "champion" - and provide people with the "chances" her mother had spoken of. In political terms, that meant a blend of populist economics and social progressivism: "Making the economy work for every American," cutting the cost of a college education, ending discrimination against the LGBT community.

It was aimed squarely at the Democratic base - and it went down well with the crowd. Invoking "trickle-down economics" extracted a hearty boo, while making the US a "clean-energy superpower" earned a rousing cheer.

All the right notes

"I thought she hit every point - she mentioned every single area that's going to mean something for the people that are going to vote for her," supporter Barb Ersson told me after the speech.

Another supporter, Christine Boese, agreed - albeit with a dash of caution. "I think she hit all the main policy points. If she can do all those things, she'll be a magician."

But others weren't persuaded by Clinton's efforts to tug on liberal heartstrings. Just outside Roosevelt Park, protester Marni Halasa was listening in. She saw the speech as an effort to take on the mantle of Elizabeth Warren - the Massachusetts Senator and banker-baiting darling of the Democrats' liberal wing.

"She's talking to Elizabeth Warren and asking, Elizabeth, Elizabeth, how are you getting people to love you? Well, because Elizabeth Warren is more real than she is."

Marni told DW this sitting by the side of the road, overheating in an elaborate Hillary-pig-costume covered with hundred-dollar bills. For all the theatrics, her criticism is one that has dogged Clinton for years: that she is somehow not "real."

It's a criticism that has resurfaced in this year's campaign. When her launch video hailed "everyday Americans," skeptics asked what she knew of everyday American life. By her own admission she hasn't driven a car since 1996, and until recently she has commanded fees of over $200,000 (178,000 euros) a pop on the lecture circuit.

More worryingly for the Clinton campaign, a recent poll found that 57 percent of respondents said she was not "honest and trustworthy," in the wake of the controversies over her email system and foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation.

Marni Halasa / Republikaner / Hillary Clinton Kundgebung / New York

Marni Halasa found a colorful way to express her views on Clinton

Pushing boundaries

By invoking her modest roots, Clinton's speech implicitly sought to defuse the former issue. On the issue of "trust," the supporters in the crowd brushed off the allegations - some saying they were motivated by her gender.

"She's pushing some boundaries as a woman running for office, and I think people are afraid of that," Margaret Neill said. "She has the most experience, she's incredibly vital, intelligent, capable, competent person. She seems like the right person for the job."

But on the left, Marni Halasa isn't persuaded. "What's interesting to me is that a lot of people who support her - they think that just because she's a woman that they should vote her into office," she told DW. "I just think she's too entrenched with big business. I want to believe that she's a real populist, but I just don't see it."

Christine Boese disagrees - she believes Clinton's speech marked a return to her roots. "I taught public school kids in Arkansas, kids who went to school with Chelsea when she was like 13. I've always known them to be just ordinary people. As most people from Arkansas would."

Debates like this will continue in the Democratic Party for months. For now, Clinton's campaign president John Podesta believes the focus is firmly on the first four states in the next year's primaries, starting with Iowa.

But would she also be heading overseas, after one of the leading Republican contenders, Jeb Bush, spent last week touring European capitals from Berlin to Tallinn?

"I don't think that Hillary actually needs to go to Europe to know the difference between Germany and Estonia," said Podesta, a wry aside suggesting what the Clinton campaign is really looking forward to is moving beyond the primaries and taking the fight to the Republicans.

Gatecrasher Raffi Williams said he and his party will be ready and waiting. "We think we have a very strong field." For Clinton believers and skeptics alike, 2016 will be a very interesting year.

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