Hillary Rodham Clinton addresses an awards gala at the Kennedy Center in… (Nicholas Kamm, AFP/Getty…)
WASHINGTON — — Hillary Rodham Clinton returned to the public stage Tuesday night for the opening scene in what many expect to be a carefully plotted performance concluding with another presidential try.
The high-profile venue: the Kennedy Center in the nation's capital. Several dozen mostly student-age supporters of a Clinton presidential run rallied outside, brandishing blue-and-white "I'm Ready for Hillary" placards. But the event inside was strictly nonpartisan: an awards gala for an international women's rights organization that Clinton had helped create.
For Clinton, the engagement marked her reemergence in public since she left her job as secretary of State two months ago. The audience of several thousand included former campaign aides and supporters, as well as colleagues from the Bill Clinton and Obama administrations. She called it "a little bit like a family reunion."
"Looking around this room, I know that it's filled with friends and colleagues and advocates and extraordinary women and men who understand the importance of this work. Many of us have worked and traveled together for decades. We've shared struggles and successes and even some foxholes over the years," she said, setting off a ripple of laughter.
She made no allusion to her future, instead focusing on familiar themes from her work on women's issues.
She was joined at the event by Vice President Joe Biden, whose own moves are being viewed as a possible lead-up to a 2016 bid. Most Democrats consider it unlikely that both would run, with Biden likely to do so only if Clinton doesn't.
Clinton congratulated Biden on Congress' recent renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, which Biden helped craft as a senator. The vice president returned the compliment, calling her service as secretary of State "magnificent."
"There's no woman like Hillary Clinton, and that's a fact," he said, to enthusiastic applause and cheers.
Biden's remarks included a vigorous defense of the need to make women's rights an integral part of U.S. foreign policy. "Too many times in the past we have been cowed by the notion that we do not interfere with other cultures and their practices, particularly when it comes to gender. Those days are over," he said.
In Democratic circles, the assumption is that Clinton will be a candidate as long as she is healthy. Early polls suggest that she might be the most formidable nonincumbent to seek the Democratic nomination in the modern era.
Clinton has yet to say what her plans are. Her husband, former President Clinton, has said he doesn't know what she will do.
But her decision to endorse same-sex marriage last month was widely viewed as a clue. In typical Hillary Clinton fashion, it came out of the blue in a five-minute videotaped statement posted online by a gay rights organization, without advance notice. Her first presidential run launched similarly, with the surprise release of an online video after years of anticipation and speculation.
With her service as a first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of State, the presidency would be the ultimate political achievement for Clinton, who would break the "glass ceiling" as the first female president.
Clinton entered the 2008 contest as the Democratic favorite but lost a prolonged nomination struggle to Barack Obama. But that race strengthened her skills as a candidate. And four years as the nation's top diplomat — for which she gained high marks from the public, according to polls — added another dimension to her resume.
She is currently writing a book about her tenure at the State Department. This month, she'll also begin a public speaking career, with fees expected to run into six figures per speech. Her first announced paid appearance is April 24 at an apartment industry convention in Texas. The event, outside Dallas, is closed to the public and the media.
Clinton, who promoted economic development for women during her husband's presidency, made international women's rights a focal point when she was at the State Department.
This week, she will make two appearances at annual events she addressed as secretary of State. In addition to Tuesday's gala, which benefited the Vital Voices Global Partnership, an international charity that promotes human rights and entrepreneurship for women, she'll be in New York on Friday for the Women in the World Summit.