Hillary Clinton stumps for McAuliffe

Posted at 11:30 AM, Oct 20, 2013
and last updated 2013-10-20 10:34:38-04

FALLS CHURCH, Virginia (CNN) -- For the first time since the 2008 presidential race, Hillary Clinton made a foray back into the thorny world of campaign politics on Saturday, appearing at a rally for Terry McAuliffe, the longtime Clinton confidante now running for governor of Virginia.

About 500 people showed up to the historic State Theatre in Falls Church, a suburb of Washington, D.C. to witness Clinton's smiling re-emergence on the political scene, showering her with applause when she made even the slightest allusion to running for office again.

What did we learn about her future plans as she considers a repeat bid for the White House in 2016? Not much at all, actually.

But here are three important takeaways from Clinton's first big political speech since leaving the State Department earlier this year:

She was relaxed

Never a dynamic speaker on the stump in 2008, Clinton was instead relaxed, confident and authoritative on Saturday.

It's not hard to see why.

This was a supremely low-risk event for Clinton -- as perfect a re-entry into national politics as she could have asked for. Barring some kind of wacky collapse in the final three weeks of the race, McAuliffe is generally expected to defeat his Republican opponent Ken Cuccinelli, though some Democrats here expect the winning margin to be a few points smaller than the eight-point lead he holds in the polls, given the usual GOP turnout edge in an off-year.

The former secretary of state has a close personal friendship with McAuliffe, a longtime fundraiser, poker buddy, cheerleader, political fixer and all-purpose confidant for the Clintons.

The event's frame -- it was billed as a "Women For Terry" rally -- was right in Clinton's strike zone, giving her a chance to talk about politics in terms she feels most comfortable.

"The whole country is watching to see if the rights of women and girls will be respected, especially over our own bodies and our health care," she said of the Virginia race, alluding to Cuccinelli's efforts as a state legislator and attorney general to curb access to abortion.

Add it all up, and Clinton was completely at ease on Saturday, campaigning in front a fawning audience in the Washington suburbs, talking about women's issues and propping up one of her longtime pals.

"I thought hard about what I wanted to say to Virginians today," she said. "I've been out of politics for a few years now. And I've had a chance to think a lot about what makes our country so great. What kind of leadership is required to keep it great."

She wasn't afraid to jab Republicans, however gently

Clinton stayed mostly positive, but she didn't shy away from taking a few shots at Republicans, albeit not by name.

Talking about the political gridlock on Capitol Hill that led to a 16-day government shutdown this month, she said that "we have seen examples of the wrong kind of leadership" in recent days, an unmistakable poke at House Republicans.

"Politicians choose scorched-earth over common ground," she continued. "They operate in what I called the evidence-free-zone, with ideology trumping everything else," she said, before listing the consequences of the shutdown, such as furloughed workers and "children thrown out of Head Start."

Clinton also made sure to highlight Republican efforts to enforce stricter abortion regulations in Virginia. McAuliffe, she said, would "stand up against attempts to restrict women's health choices."

Rounding out her speech, Clinton alluded to Alexis de Tocqueville, the French writer who described Americans as having "habits of the heart" when he traveled to the U.S. nearly 200 years ago.

But Clinton warned that such a spirit is under threat.

"We cannot let those who do not believe in America's progress hijack this great experiment, and substitute for the habits of the heart suspicion, hatred, anger, anxiety. That's not as a people who we are."

She executed the McAuliffe game plan

As much as Clinton was the story here, time and again she served as a character witness for McAuliffe, whom Republicans have relentlessly attacked as a carnival barker and Washington insider.

"I've seen the values that he was raised with," Clinton said of McAuliffe, standing next to her on stage at the State Theatre, along with his wife Dorothy. "He grew up in a middle class family. He was taught about the dignity of work and the importance of looking out for each other. He started his first business at the age of 14 because he knew he was going to have to put himself through school. He's lived those values."

The Clinton appearance was straight out of McAuliffe's playbook from day one.

No one in Virginia is surprised that his campaign deployed Clinton at this late stage of the game, an effort to stir up scads of press attention and drown out the cash-strapped Cuccinelli, who is not even airing television ads in the crucial northern Virginia media market this weekend, two ad-buying sources told CNN.

Cuccinelli spent Saturday rallying the conservative base with Mike Huckabee in central Virginia.

The Democrats' goal is to lock in McAuliffe's lead and keep their boot on Cuccinelli's neck as they head into the final stretch.

And guess what: former President Bill Clinton, the big dog himself, will also be campaigning for McAuliffe in the coming weeks. Date TBD.