WASHINGTON - Hillary Rodham Clinton stayed on safe political ground Tuesday, advocating women's rights globally in a 12-minute speech, but that was enough to excite fans imploring the former first lady, senator and secretary of state to run again for president three years from now.
Clinton, perhaps as popular as ever in her 22 years in national politics, said she has "unwavering faith in the untapped potential of women and girls." She spoke at the Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards, at Washington's Kennedy Center. The event, highlighting efforts such as expanding education for girls and fighting domestic violence worldwide, marked her first public speech since ending her much-praised stint as secretary of state.
As members of the group Ready for Hillary cheered outside, the 2016 political buzz was inevitable. Vice President Joe Biden - another potential Democratic candidate - spoke later at the same event.
If Clinton has any jealousy, she didn't show it. She praised Biden effusively, especially for his role in Congress' recent renewal of the Violence Against Women Act.
Biden returned the compliment a half-hour later, after Clinton had left the stage, telling the mostly female audience of more than 2,000 that "there's no woman like Hillary Clinton."
Biden said Clinton's declaration in China nearly two decades ago - "Women's rights are human rights," she said at the time - "still echoes forcefully around the world." Women everywhere, he said, "are entitled to every single opportunity that any man is."
Clinton, 65, has said she has no plans for a second presidential bid, but she hasn't ruled it out. Democrats argue among themselves whether she has the desire and energy to go through the grueling campaign process she knows so well. But many see her as a prohibitive favorite whose head start would be so big that other potential candidates might starve for funds and attention.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll in January found that 67 percent of Americans held a favorable view of Clinton. That's her highest rating since the poll began measuring her popularity in the 1990s. It spans her eight years in the Senate.
"It's hard to overstate the breadth and depth of enthusiasm for a Hillary run," said Doug Hattaway, a former Clinton campaign aide and now a Washington-based consultant. She built a national base of supporters in 2008, when she lost a hard-fought nomination fight to Barack Obama, and she's widely respected after her turn heading the State Department, Hattaway said.
"A lot of donors, volunteers and potential campaign workers will wait to hear what she decides before committing to other candidates," he said, although "anyone with their eye on 2016 is already working on it."
Mo Elleithee, a top spokesman for Clinton's 2008 campaign, said it's much too early to press her for an answer.
"My advice to everyone is to chill out," Elleithee said. "There's no need for all this breathless anticipation at this point," he said, and political activists should focus on next year's mid-term elections.
Noting that Clinton said she has no intention of running, he said, "I think that's where her head is." But he said he shares "the enthusiasm" for a Clinton candidacy.
There may be no one in America with a clearer view of what it takes to run for president.
Clinton was a highly visible adviser and defender of her husband, Bill, then the Arkansas governor, when he was elected president in 1992 in 1996. Her eight years as first lady included the excruciating Monica Lewinsky scandal and her husband's impeachment.
On the same day her husband's successor was elected, Clinton handily won a Senate seat from New York. She breezed to re-election in 2006 and was the early favorite for the 2008 presidential nomination.
But Obama used his early opposition to the Iraq war, plus a keen understanding of how to win small states' delegates, to outmaneuver the Clinton team. Obama promptly tapped his former rival to be secretary of state, assuring Clinton another prime post at the center of national policy and politics.
Some Democrats want the party to look to younger candidates, noting that Clinton will turn 69 shortly before Election Day 2016, and Biden will turn 74 soon after. Those drawing notice include New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, 55, and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, 50.
As runner-up in the 2008 Democratic primary, Clinton arguably is the party's heir apparent. Republicans, not Democrats, typically nominate the next-in-line contender.
With the early GOP presidential picture wildly scrambled, it's possible that Republicans will tap a newer, younger nominee while Democrats consider one of the nation's best-known figures, and certainly the most high-profile female politician.
Clinton is scheduled to speak Friday at the Women in the World Summit in New York.