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As Hillary Clinton soars, questions shadow lucrative speaking tour

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who leads the pack of potential Democratic 2016 presidential contenders, speaks to a group o
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who leads the pack of potential Democratic 2016 presidential contenders, speaks to a group o

By Gabriel Debenedetti

CORAL GABLES, Florida (Reuters) - Hillary Clinton has not announced whether she's running for president in 2016. But when she and the road show that inevitably follows her arrived at the University of Miami, an official declaration seemed a mere formality.

In a scene with all the makings of a campaign appearance, a line of Miami students waiting to get into Clinton's speech snaked around the university's arena hours before her arrival on Wednesday. When she arrived, it was with the heavy protection she retains as a former secretary of state and the wife of a former president, Bill Clinton.

Outside the arena, Ready for Hillary, an independent pro-Clinton group that has recruited veterans of President Barack Obama's campaigns, was signing up supporters. By the time Clinton's speech began, there were "Ready For Hillary" signs and stickers throughout the crowd of an estimated 6,000 - including at least 3,200 students.

Clinton's remarks were not surprising - a call for students to get involved in their communities, and support for Obama's healthcare overhaul, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer's veto of anti-gay legislation, democracy in Venezuela and the continued removal of chemical weapons from Syria.

As usual, she was coy about the prospect of a bid to become the first woman to be U.S. president. When asked about the letters "TBD" in her biography on Twitter, Clinton, 66, said with a smile, "I'll certainly ponder that."

Clinton's speech represented the public face of a lucrative nationwide speaking tour that has kept her in the spotlight as the widely presumed, albeit undeclared, front-runner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.

But the tour also is raising concerns among Democrats and others over a range of issues, from the political implications of Democrats rallying around Clinton so long before the 2016 election to the way her team has stage-managed what some see as a nationwide dash for cash in speaking fees.

Some Democrats are wary of criticizing Clinton publicly, but privately worry that scenes such as the one in Coral Gables could wind up hurting the party in 2016 if they portray Clinton as an entitled prospect who does not have to fight for the party's nomination. Such a sentiment is widely believed to have damaged Clinton in 2008, when she lost the party's nomination to Obama despite entering the race as the favorite.

Early polls indicate that Clinton easily would be the favorite to win the 2016 nomination if she chose to run. But in recent weeks there have been signs of frustration within the party over what some call the "inevitability" of her nomination.

Vice President Joe Biden, who has said he is considering a run for the White House, seemed to reflect the thinking of the tap-the-brakes-on-Clinton crowd this week when he told Politico that 2016 is "lifetimes away" and that he is "as qualified as anybody" to be president.

There also are complaints about private speeches Clinton has given to various groups.

Clinton's staff and her representatives will not comment on her fees, but several booking agents who have worked with political figures estimate that her per-speech fee for private groups could range up to $250,000.

Her paid appearances have included talks with investors at high-profile Wall Street firms such as Goldman Sachs and Carlyle Group, leading some liberal groups that typically support Democrats to wonder whether Clinton might be too cozy with Wall Street for their taste.

"It's a big red flag," said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which advocates tighter financial regulation.

"If she outwardly campaigns as a corporate Democrat, it wouldn't be a conflict of interest - it would just be a conflict with where the center of gravity in America is," Green said.

A 'HEAVILY DISCOUNTED' FEE

Clinton's staff will not say how she chooses her audiences or how much she could make from the dozens of speeches on her tour this year.

Harry Walker Agency, the firm that books her speeches and also represents political luminaries such as Bill Clinton and former vice presidents Dick Cheney and Al Gore, did not respond to requests for comment.

For her speech at the University of Miami, Clinton was paid a "heavily discounted" fee that was covered by a donor and not the university, said Donna Shalala, the university's president.

Shalala, who was secretary of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department under Bill Clinton and is a longtime ally of the Clintons, would not identify the donor or disclose the fee.

The Miami speech was typical of those Hillary Clinton has given to voting groups that are Democrats' target in get-out-the-vote campaigns - young voters, African Americans and women. It appears that Clinton typically charges a modest fee, or no fee, for such speeches.

But most of the speeches Clinton has given lately have been more private affairs, in which ticket-buyers pay a considerable price to see her. Clinton's staff often demands that her speeches be closed to media or be "off the record" - even when the speeches take place at conferences where other events are open to reporters.

Hours before she spoke in Coral Gables, Clinton gave a talk at a healthcare technology conference in Orlando. Reporters asking about that event were told they could gain access by buying a ticket for $475.

'SHE'S A PHENOMENON'

It is not unusual for former politicians and public officials to enjoy lucrative speaking careers once they have left office.

Since leaving the presidency in 2001, Bill Clinton has been paid more than $90 million in speaking fees, including $13.4 million in 2011, according to tabulations by CNN and financial disclosures by Hillary Clinton when she was a U.S. senator from New York and secretary of state.

As was the case last year when a group in Israel paid him $500,000 for a 45-minute speech commemorating Israeli President Shimon Peres' 90th birthday, Bill Clinton has donated some of his fees to his family's charitable foundation.

But because of the possibility that Hillary Clinton still may seek the nation's highest office, her collecting huge speaking fees is seen a bit differently by some in Washington.

Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf acknowledges that in Washington's heated partisan environment, some insiders in both parties "are going to complain about anything that Secretary Clinton does, and her supporters are going to say everything she does is great."

But, Sheinkopf said, "This country has a history of putting rich people into public office. If they're jealous of the amount of money she's making for speeches, they should become the former first lady and a former senator and a former secretary of state, and see what happens."

Clinton has said that she will not decide whether to run for president before the end of this year. Until then, she will continue the speaking tour, and promote a new memoir that focuses on her time as a diplomat.

Clinton has said that an assault by militants on a U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans in 2012 was her greatest regret as secretary of state, and Republicans continue to try to use the episode to portray her as incompetent on foreign policy.

The summer release of her book will give her opportunities to talk about her time as secretary of state in carefully staged appearances, while continuing to give lucrative speeches.

Some of her supporters play down the notion that she could face a backlash from her speaking tour.

"A huge part of politics is staying in touch and being engaged and involved," said former Ohio governor Ted Strickland, a Democrat who says he would welcome a Clinton presidential bid. "She's a phenomenon, and seems to be becoming more so."

(Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan in Washington, Editing by David Lindsey and Ken Wills)

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