WASHINGTON (AP) - Around Christmas, Hillary Rodham Clinton set off on her annual holiday vacation at Oscar de la Renta's beachfront estate in the Dominican Republic.
It was a somber and serious time for Clinton. De la Renta, whose relationship with the former first lady had blossomed from dress designer to close friend, had recently died and Clinton wanted to be there to support his widow. She was also wrestling with a final decision on whether to run for president. She arrived at the island compound armed with a binder stuffed with 500 pages of policy memos and analysis.
Clinton had spent nearly two years tiptoeing around a decision that much of the political world assumed was a done deal, a calculated next act in what critics saw as the Clintons' master plan.
Clinton's intensely loyal friends and advisers bristle at the suggestion that a second White House run was inevitable. When she left the State Department in early 2013 and returned to private life for the first time in more than two decades, Clinton told people she just wanted to "walk, sleep and eat." She was more focused on renting office space and figuring out where to receive her mail than on superPAC fundraising and courting Iowa powerbrokers, allies said.
Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign
Clinton's decision: The long road to a second campaign
BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 10: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton holds a campaign rally at City Garage April 10, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland. Voters will head to polling places for Maryland's presidential primary April 26. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton laughs as she listens to Representative Steve Israel (D-NY) speak on a gun control panel in Port Washington, New York April 11, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 09: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton holds a Latino organizing event on April 9, 2016 while campaigning in the Brooklyn Borough of New York City. The New York Democratic primary is scheduled for April 19th. (Photo by Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images)
SPRINGFIELD, MA - FEBRUARY 29: Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a 'Get Out The Vote' rally at the Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History on February 29, 2016 in Springfield, Massachusetts. Hillary Clinton is campaigning in Massachusetts and Virginia ahead of Super Tuesday. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to supporters at the Old South Meeting Hall during a rally in Boston, Massachusetts on Monday February 29, 2016. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - MARCH 01: Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton greets patrons at Mapps Coffee on March 1, 2016 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Hillary Clinton is campaigning in Minnesota as Super Tuesday voting takes place in 12 states. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
MOUNT VERNON, IOWA - OCTOBER 7: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to voters during an outdoor town hall meeting at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa on Wednesday October 7, 2015. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
MUSCATINE, IOWA - OCTOBER 6: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to a voter before leaving a farm in Muscatine, Iowa on Tuesday October 6, 2015. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, NH - OCTOBER 05: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton holds a town hall meeting at the Manchester Community College on October 5, 2015 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Clinton spoke about the need for gun control on the wake of a mass shooting at another community college in Oregon. (Photo by Alfredo Sosa/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)
DAVIE, FL - OCTOBER 02: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks about gun control during her campaign stop at the Broward College Ã Hugh Adams Central Campus on October 2, 2015 in Davie, Florida. Hillary Clinton continues to campaign for the nomination of the Democratic Party as their presidential candidate. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 19: Hillary Clinton attends the Phoenix Awards Dinner at the 45th Annual Legislative Black Caucus Foundation Conference at Walter E. Washington Convention Center on September 19, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Earl Gibson III/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, NH - SEPTEMBER 19: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton claps on stage during the New Hampshire Democratic Party Convention at the Verizon Wireless Center on September 19, 2015 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Challenger for the democratic vote Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has been gaining ground on Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
PORTLAND, ME - SEPTEMBER 18: Hillary Clinton brings her Democratic presidential campaign to Maine for the first time, speaking at King Middle School. Clinton is welcomed as she is introduced at the event. (Photo by Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
CEDAR RAPIDS, IA - SEPTEMBER 7: Democratic Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton takes time to meet supporters and take photos at the Annual Hawkeye Labor Council AFL-CIO Labor Day picnic on September 7, 2015 at Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Clinton spent a busy Labor Day weekend in Iowa, meeting supporters throughout the state while trying to maintain a lead over Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination. (Photo by David Greedy/Getty Images)
US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton takes part in a discussion after speaking about the Iran nuclear deal at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, on September 9, 2015. Clinton expressed firm support for the nuclear accord with Iran, calling it flawed but still strong. Clinton added that the agreement must be strictly enforced and said that if elected president next year, she would not hesitate to use military force if Iran fails to live up to its word and tries to develop a bomb. AFP PHOTO/NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
PORTSMOUTH, NH - SEPTEMBER 5: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen take an off the schedule stop in the River Run Bookstore before shaking hands with onlookers on September 5, 2015 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. (Photos by Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
PORTSMOUTH, NH - SEPTEMBER 5: Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton receives an endorsement from U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) September 5, 2015 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Clinton attended a Women for Hillary event at Portsmouth High School. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
PORTSMOUTH, NH - SEPTEMBER 5: Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton walks downtown Portsmouth and takes pictures with people September 5, 2015 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Clinton attended a Women for Hillary event at Portsmouth High School earlier in the day and received an endorsement from U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - AUGUST 18: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton answers questions from journalists after speaking to north Las Vegas voters at a town hall meeting in Las Vegas, on Tuesday, August 18, 2015. The former Secretary was answering questions about emails sent and received a private server system, now in question, while she was the Secretary of State. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - August 15: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton greets fairgoers as she tours the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday, August 15, 2015. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
CARROLL, IA - JULY 26: Democratic presidential hopeful and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to guests gathered for a house party on July 26, 2015 in Carroll, Iowa. Although Clinton leads all other Democratic contenders, a recent poll had her trailing several of the Republican candidates in Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - MAY 20: Democratic presidential hopeful and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives for a meeting with parents and child care workers at the Center for New Horizons on May 20, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. Clinton arrived in Chicago after campaigning Monday and Tuesday in Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - MAY 05: Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (C) poses with students and faculty after speaking at Rancho High School on May 5, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Clinton said that any immigration reform would need to include a path to 'full and equal citizenship.' (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 23: Hillary Rodham Clinton (L) and actress Maggie Gyllenhaal attend the 2015 DVF Awards at United Nations on April 23, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Stewart/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 29: Democratic presidential hopeful and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during the David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum at Columbia University April 29, 2015 in New York City. Clinton addressed the unrest in Baltimore, called for police body cameras and a reform to sentencing. (Photo by Kevin Hagen/Getty Images)
Hillary Clinton announced her campaign for president on Sunday April, 12, 2015 with a video on YouTube.
(Screenshot from YouTube)
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Her decision to run again would be slow, almost painstakingly deliberate, a reflection of Clinton's methodical and cautious nature. She put off much of the process until last fall, around the midterm elections. Only then did she delve deeply into consultations with dozens of policy and political experts, analysis of countless memos, and a reexamination of what went wrong in her failed 2008 campaign.
By the time Clinton arrived in the Dominican Republic, she had largely settled on running a second campaign, but wanted to make the final determination with her husband, Bill. When she returned to New York in the new year, there was no formal meeting with staff or email to friends to announce her candidacy. Clinton simply started telling advisers to move forward with hiring and find a campaign headquarters.
Clinton formally launched her campaign in an online video Sunday. That will be followed by a series of small events in early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire. The announcement cements her status as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, back within sight of an elusive ambition and a history-making turn as the nation's first female commander in chie
Already one of the world's most analyzed figures, the 67-year-old will be subjected to months more scrutiny of her wealth, her appearance and health, and her personal relationships.
This account of how Clinton decided to run for president a second time is based on interviews with nearly 20 people who spent significant time with her as she recovered from her stunning loss to President Barack Obama in 2008, served as secretary of state, and contemplated another White House run. Some requested anonymity in order to speak candidly about their private conversations with Clinton.
Hillary Clinton through the years
Clinton's decision: The long road to a second campaign
A 1992 photo shows then Governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton (L) and his wife Hillary (R) embracing. (Photo credit AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton (L) waves to supporters as he holds the hand of his wife Hillary, 22 July, 1992 after speaking at a rally. St. Louis was the last stop on the Clinton-Gore campaign's bus tour. The crowd was estimated at 40,000. (Photo credit Tim Clary, AFP/Getty Images)
US President Bill Clinton's wife Hillary Rodham Clinton (l) in a picture taken 16 January 1993 in Little Rock, hugs her daughter Chelsea during a farewell address to the people of Arkansas at an airport rally. The Clinton family then left for Charlottesville, Virginia for the start of the planned bus trip to Washington, DC. (Photo credit J. David Ake, AFP/Getty Images)
First Lady Hillary Clinton (R) watches over as 12-year-old Chevon Perry (L) works on a lesson at P.S. 115 Elementary School 26 January 1993. Clinton made her first trip as first lady to New York to receive an award for her service to children. (Photo credit Tim Clary, AFP/Getty Images)
First Lady Hillary Clinton responds to applause, 12 February 1993, in Arlington, VA, as U.S. President Bill Clinton stands behind her. (Photo credit Robert Giroux, AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton laughs as she is presented a bouquet of flowers by Japanee children 08 July 1993 at the Meguro waste incineration plant in Tokyo, Japan. Mrs. Clinton, maintaining a high profile during the G7 summit, is popular in Japan. (Photo credit David Nelson, AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Bill Clinton (R) and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton (L) listen to Karl Kregor explain, 16 September 1993 in Washington, D.C. why he is afraid of losng health isurance for his family.The Clintons met at the White House with citizens who shared problems they have had with the present health care system. Clinton is scheduled to present his health care plan to a joint session of congress 22 September. (Photo credit Paul Richards, AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. First Lady Hillary Clinton responds 22 September 1993 to applause from a joint session of the U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C. after President Bill Clinton saluted her as the 'talented navigator' for the national health plan he is proposing. Standing alongside the first lady is Dr. T. Berry Brazelton (L), a noted pediatrician and author. (Photo credit J. David Ake, AFP/Getty Images)
First Lady Hillary Clinton attends the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. (Photo by Clive Brunskill, Getty Images)
US First Lady Hillary Clinton (L) and Wife of French Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, Marie-Josephe Balladur pose at the Hotel Matignon on June 7, 1994. (Photo credit Pascal Pavani, AFP/Getty Images)
First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton (C) smiles at a friend in the crowd 28 September 1994 as she stands next to Russian First Lady Naina Yeltsin (L) during a ceremony at the Library of Congress. Mrs. Yeltsin was accompanying her husband on his visit to Washington for a summit meeting with US President Bill Clinton. AFP YEARENDER (Photo credit Joshua Roberts, AFP/Getty Images)
US President Bill Clinton (R) and First Lady Hillary Clinton leave the White House for the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, 13 Janaury. President Clinton is waving a copy of the morning pool report on his activities, which was written as a poem. The poem begins ' The president jogged at Fort McNair....of him we saw not hide nor hair,' and ends with the slogan 'Burma Shave.' (Photo credit Paul Richards, AFP/Getty Images)
US First Lady Hillary Clinton laughs as she listens to political humorist Bill Maher address the annual dinner of the Radio and Television Correspondents Association in Washington on March 14, 1995. (Photo credit Paul J. Richards, AFP/Getty Images)
US First Lady Hillary Clinton (L) poses with 'Robo Crook'(R) a character from the television program Sesame Street at the White House in Washington, DC 26 June. Mrs. Clinton moderated a panel discussion on the role of Public Television in educating children. (Photo credit Jamal Wilson, AFP/Getty Images)
Hillary Clinton, wife of US President Bill Clinton, talks with Britain's Queen Elizabeth 30 November in the Grand Entrance Hall of Buckingham Palace in London. President Clinton and Hillary Clinton arrived 29 November morning for a three-day visit which will be dominated by the Northern Ireland peace process. (Photo credit John Stillwell, AFP/Getty Images)
US First Lady Hillary Clinton greets guests after speaking at the Women's Leadership Forum at the World Trade Center 20 June in Boston, Massachusetts.The First Lady will be in Washington DC later 20 June for the arrival of the Olympic Torch at the White House. (Photo credit John Mottern, AFP/Getty Images)
US First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton waves from the bullet-proof presidential limousine as she and US President Bill Clinton leave Sydney International Airport on November 19, 1996. The Clintons arrived in Australia from Hawaii at the start of a five-day working and holiday visit. A(Photo credit should read Torsten Blackwood, AFP/Getty Images)
US President Bill Clinton (L)and his wife Hillary listen to speakers at a coalition for America's Children event at the White House in Washington, on March 3, 1997. The Clintons will begin a series of television, radio and newspaper public service annoucements, urging Americans to help improve the lives of children. (Photo credit Joyce Naltchayan, AFP/Getty Images)
Hillary Clinton proudly shows the tea-pot which had been a gift from community worker Joyce McCartan on the Clintons' previous visit to Belfast, during her speech at the University of Ulster, in Belfast 31 October. The memorial speech, named after Joyce McCartan, who died last year, called on parties from both sides to make compromises for peace in the country. The American First Lady is on a whistle-stop tour visiting Dublin, Belfast and London in three days. (Photo credit Alan Lewis, AFP/Getty Images)
US First Lady Hillary Clinton talks with NBC TV anchorwoman Katie Couric (L)10 September during an event in the East Room of the White House promoting colon cancer awareness and prevention. Hillary Clinton announced a new research grant to fight colon cancer and unveiled a new public service announcement to promote prevention. (Photo credit Tim Sloan, AFP/Getty Images)
US President Bill Clinton, First Lady Hillary Clinton, and their daughter Chelsea tour the Forbidden City in Beijing, as a Chinese security agent (rear) looks on 28 June during their 9 day official trip to China. The three later toured the Great Wall. (Photo credit Paul J. Richards, AFP/Getty Images)
US First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton listens to speakers during ceremonies 11 January to unveil the new Dolley Madison commemorative silver dollar coin at the White House in Washington, DC. The coin, designed by Tiffany and Company is available at the US Mint and celebrates the life, achievements and 150th anniversary of Dolley Madison's death. (Photo credit Tim Sloan, AFP/Getty Images)
First Lady Hillary Clinton works the crowd as she arrives at Prior Aviation Services in Buffalo, New York, 07 February, 2000. Mrs. Clinton, who officially announced her run for US Senate 06 February, 2000, made Buffalo her fisrt campaign stop. ((Photo credit Don Emmert, AFP/Getty Images)
US First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton (R) announces the formation of the Millenium Trails Celebration Committee 19 April, 1999 at the Central Park Boathouse in New York, New York. Millenium Trails is a national initiative to create and enhance hiking, cultural and other trails across the country. It partners the White House Millenium Council, the Department of Transportation and the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. (Photo credit Stan Honda, AFP/Getty Images)
US President Bill Clinton (L) and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton (R) wait on the South Portico for the arrival of King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia 23 February 2000 at the White House in Washington, DC. The Clintons hosted an arrival ceremony for their visit. (Photo credit Stephen Jaffe, AFP/Getty Images)
US First Lady and New York US Senate candidate Hillary Clinton waves to the crowd as she arrives on the stage at the Democratic National Convention 14 August 2000 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. (Photo credit Paul J. Richards, AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Senate candidate and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton gives a thumbs-up sign to supporters at the Hispanic Day Parade October 8, 2000 in New York City. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Newsmakers via Getty)
US First Lady Hillary Clinton smiles during a press conference in New York 08 November, 2000. Clinton defeated Congressman Rick Lazio to win the US Senate seat for New York being vacated by Patrick Moynihan. AFP PHOTO Doug KANTER (Photo credit Doug Kanter, AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Senator-elect, First Lady Hillary Clinton walks through the U.S. Capitol during an orientation day for new senators December 5, 2000 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Newsmakers via Getty)
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton listens during Labor Secretary-designate Elaine Chao's confirmation hearing January 24, 2001 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Newsmakers via Getty)
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) attends a press conference to address the equal pay act June 12, 2001 Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The AFL-CIO''s Working Women Working Together held a news conference to introduce a campaign for legislation to step up enforcement of the 1963 Equal Pay Act. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
New York Senator and former First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, signs copies of her autobiography, 'Living History' at Waterstone?s bookstore on July 3, 2003 in London, England. In her autobiography, Clinton reveals her presidential ambitions and her thoughts on Monica Lewinsky. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton appears with Jon Stewart during 'The Daily Show With Jon Stewart' at the Daily Show Studios October 8, 2003 in New York City. (Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images for The Daily Show)
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) attends a news conference in front of the United Nations to denounce the International Court of Justice's recent decision on Israel's security fence July 9, 2004 in New York City. The International Court in The Hague has ruled that the barrier Israel has nearly completed in the West Bank violates international law, and the court ruled that the United Nations should take action to stop its construction. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) speaks while former U.S. President Bill Clinton listens during a visit to the New York Buddhist Vihara December 31, 2004 in the Queens borough of New York City. The Clintons toured the temple where volunteers have been collecting donations for victims of the tsunami in Sri Lanka. (Photo by Stephen Chernin/Getty Images)
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) speaks at a Democratic forum on Social Security reform at Pace University March 4, 2005 in New York City. A group of Democratic Senators spoke at the forum to protest U.S. President George W. Bush's plan to privatize Social Security. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) stands near her portrait during an unveiling ceremony at the Smithsonian April 24, 2006 in Washington DC. President Clinton's portrait will hang in the National Portrait Gallery's 'America's President's' exhibit. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Hillary Rodham Clinton watches a speaker on the final day of the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting September 22, 2006 in New York City. A large array of notables in the worlds of politics, human rights, and philanthropy have gathered in the New York for three days of seminars and pledges on global issues. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) speaks during a post primary rally at Southern New Hampshire University January 8, 2007 in Manchester, New Hampshire. After losing to Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Edwards in Iowa, Clinton (D-NY) won New Hampshire, the first of the nation's presidential primaries. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
US Senator Hillary Clinton and daughter Chelsea are seen at the lectern during a soundcheck at the Democratic National Convention 2008 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado, on August 26, 2008. Clinton takes the stage tonight vowing to unite Democrats after her primary battle with Barack Obama, on the second day of the convention that will crown him as White House nominee. The DNC is held 25-28 August. (Photo credit Stan Honda, AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential nominee U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) attend a campaign rally together at Amway Arena October 20, 2008 in Orlando, Florida. Obama continues to campaign against his challenger, Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) while Election Day begins to draw near. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Former US President Bill Clinton (L) and US Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton (R) attend the inauguration of US President Barack Obama at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 20, 2009. (Photo credit Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) is sworn in as her husband former President Bill Clinton (2nd L), and her daughter Chelsea (R) look on during a ceremonial swearing-in at the State Department February 2, 2009 in Washington, DC. Clinton is the 67th Secretary of State of the United States of America. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attends a press conference on February 21, 2009 in Beijing, China. Clinton is on a three day visit to the Chinese capital, as part of her first diplomatic tour to Asia. (Photo by Guang Niu/Pool/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks on the US vision for Asia-Pacific multilateral engagement at the East-West Center in Honolulu January 12, 2010. (Photo credit Mandel Ngan, AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, smiles during a press conference after Middle East Quartet talks in Moscow on March 19, 2010. The International Quartet on the Middle East urged Israel to freeze all settlement activity and expressed deep concern about the situation in Gaza, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said. (Photo credit Yuri Kadobnov, AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks before signing the US-China Consultation on People-to-People Exchange agreement at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing on May 25, 2010. The United States and China were wrapping up strategic talks aimed at smoothing out differences on currency and trade issues, as Washington presses Beijing to get tough on North Korea. (Photo credit Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton listens to Ambassador-Designate to Russia Michael McFaul during his swearing-in ceremony at the State Department January 10, 2011 in Washington, DC. McFaul is President Barack Obama's top adviser on Russia and has been involved in the reset of relations between the two countries and the signing of the New START treaty. (Photo by Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during the South Sudan International Engagement Conference December 14, 2011 at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, DC. The two-day conference was to highlight the national development vision of South Sudan and the opportunities for investment in the country. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
US Secretary Hillary Clinton speaks to reporters during a joint press conference with Qatar's Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al-Thani at the Department of State January 11, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Photo credit Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (R) shakes hands with Moroccan Foreign Minister Saad-Eddine el-Othmani prior to meetings at the State Department in Washington, DC, on March 15, 2012. (Photo credit Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton smiles during a joint press conference with Australian Foreign Minister arr following their meeting at the State Department in Washington, DC, on April 24, 2012. (Photo credit Jewel Samad, AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill January 23, 2013 in Washington, DC. Lawmakers questioned Clinton about the security failures during the September 11 attacks against the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, that led to the death of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addresses the Vital Voices Global Awards ceremony at the Kennedy Center in Washington on April 2, 2013. The event honors 'women leaders from around the world who are the unsung heroines to strengthen democracy, increase economic opportunity, and protect human rights,' according to the group's website. (Photo credit Nicholas Kamm, AFP/Getty Images)
Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks about the situation in Syria after meeting with US President Barack Obama, prior to remarks about US efforts to combat wildlife trafficking at a White House forum at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, DC on September 9, 2013. (Photo credit Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images)
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks on stage at the Pennsylvania Conference For Women 2013 at Philadelphia Convention Center on November 1, 2013 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Lisa Lake/Getty Images for Pennsylvania Conference for Women)
Hillary Clinton attends the New-York Historical Society 2014 History Makers Gala at Mandarin Oriental Hotel on November 21, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images)
Hillary Rodham Clinton Book Signing For 'Hard Choices' at Barnes & Noble bookstore at The Grove on June 19, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers a keynote address during the Watermark Silicon Valley Conference for Women on February 24, 2015 in Santa Clara, California. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a keynote address to thousands of women in attendance for the Watermark Silicon Valley Conference for Women. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks on stage during a ceremony to induct her into the Irish America Hall of Fame on March 16, 2015 in New York City. The Irish America Hall of Fame was founded in 2010 and recognizes exceptional figures in the Irish American community. (Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images)
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The 2008 defeat was devastating for Clinton, a slow motion train wreck she appeared powerless to stop.
After finally conceding to Obama, Clinton fell back into the relatively powerless role of junior senator from New York. In an institution where influence is gained through seniority, she ranked 70th out of 100.
Clinton appeared willing to at least consider carving out a career - and a legacy - in the Senate. She studied John Kerry's approach when he returned to Capitol Hill after losing the 2004 presidential election. She and her advisers discussed other senators she admired, including Dianne Feinstein, the longtime California Democrat. Feinstein was on the powerful appropriations committee, so they weighed whether Clinton should seek a spot on the committee, too.
Clinton escaped the Senate through an unlikely opportunity. Obama, her former rival, asked her to join his administration as secretary of state.
Clinton confidantes view her four years at the helm of the State Department as her golden era - a chance for one of the country's most polarizing figures to jump off the political treadmill. She set a record for international travel and prioritized issues she had long been passionate about, including global health and boosting opportunities for women and girls. The deeper she delved into policy, the higher her approval rating went.
A telltale sign that Clinton was in her comfort zone: she was willing to throw her famously scrutinized hair up in a ponytail in front of the cameras.
"She was her own person," said Lisa Caputo, a former senior adviser to Clinton. "It was the pragmatist Hillary, nose to the grindstone."
Talk of another presidential campaign still followed Clinton everywhere she went, but she repeatedly ruled it out. In 2011, she said her plan was to make secretary of state her "last public position," then "probably go back to advocacy work, particularly on behalf of women and children, and probably around the world."
A former aide described Clinton's attitude at that point more bluntly: "It was not just 'no,' but 'hell no.'"
2016 Democratic candidates Clinton, etc
Clinton's decision: The long road to a second campaign
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After Clinton's long-planned departure from the State Department in early 2013, enticing opportunities started flowing in.
Prominent universities, including Harvard, Columbia and Yale, offered wide-ranging academic and policy posts. The Ford Foundation, which bills itself as a global social change organization, approached her. George Soros, the billionaire liberal philanthropist, wanted Clinton to run his foundation. Major companies dangled spots on corporate boards.
None of the opportunities felt like the right fit. Some risked complicating the potential presidential campaign Clinton was now quietly willing to discuss.
"Hell no" had turned into a definite maybe.
Throughout the spring, Clinton reconnected with her vast network of friends in New York, California and her hometown in Illinois. They hadn't seen much of her while she crossed the globe as a diplomat and now they were telling her to run again.
"I said, 'You don't need to do this for you,' " said Lynn Forester de Rothschild, a longtime friend and Clinton financial backer. "But, you must do it because the country needs you."
Clinton had also started to pay more attention to a fledgling political organization encouraging her to run. The Ready for Hillary group had initially been a source of frustration for her advisers, who dismissed it as a JV operation that was putting too much pressure on Clinton far too quickly.
The group had the look of a campaign-in-waiting. A bus plastered with Clinton's picture was rolling through towns in Iowa and New Hampshire. Democratic senators showed up at events to announce endorsements, particularly those who had spurned her for Obama during her first campaign.
Soon, the Clinton team's view of Ready for Hillary would shift from annoyance to acceptance. The energy the organization was harnessing reminded them of the kind of grassroots movements they jealously watched mobilize around Obama in 2008.
Even around those closest to her, Clinton offered few indications of how seriously she was considering another run. Friends read the tea leaves much like the public.
An announcement that she now supported gay marriage seemed to indicate she wanted to run. But her decision to accept speaking fees of more than $200,000 per appearance didn't look like the mark of a politician who would soon be seeking the votes of financially strapped Americans.
Clinton had long ago moved on from her bruising defeat. A former aide compared her ability to close the door on professional failures to her ability to stay in her marriage amid her husband's public infidelities. But her devoted staff still bore the scars of the last go-around and some were adamantly opposed to another run.
Cheryl Mills, a deeply loyal adviser to both Hillary and Bill, was among the most vocal and told anyone who asked that she thought her friend was "crazy" for even considering a campaign.
Among the fears of Mills and others? Clinton could lose again.
"This is it for her," one former adviser said. "Whatever happens, that's what she'll be known for."
In 2014, Democratic officials told Clinton that if she was even thinking about running for president, she needed to be on the campaign trail in the midterms. Vulnerable candidates saw Obama as politically toxic, but were clamoring to appear alongside the woman they wanted as the party's next leader.
Clinton's initial foray back into the political arena was bumpy at best.
Some of the shine had started to come off Clinton as she promoted the memoir she had written about her State Department years. She stumbled in an early interview by declaring that she and her husband, who quickly amassed millions after his presidency, were "dead broke" when they left the White House. In a separate interview, she appeared to criticize Obama for declaring that his foreign policy doctrine was to avoid doing "stupid stuff." She scrambled to apologize to the president.
Her first campaign appearances were flat. In Iowa, the state where she was vanquished by Obama in the 2008 primary, she awkwardly declared, "I'm baaack!" before launching into a pro forma recitation of Democratic talking points.
Clinton and her aides knew it hadn't gone well. She lacked a clear message, one she could ultimately turn into a rationale for her own candidacy.
Two weeks later, her daughter, Chelsea, gave birth to a girl, Charlotte Clinton Mezvinsky.
It was a jubilant moment for Clinton, who had long hoped for a grandchild. It was also politically clarifying. Suddenly Clinton saw a way to tie the policy issues she had long worked on with her motivation for potentially seeking the White House.
Clinton personally wrote much of the new speech for her next public rally, an October event for Pennsylvania Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf. Unlike her stale appearance in Iowa, her remarks were fiery, both sharply political and personal.
"You should not have to be the grandchild of a president to get a good education, to get good health care," Clinton said. "Let's make sure we give every child in Pennsylvania the same chance that I'm determined to give my granddaughter."
By the time the midterms were over, Clinton had traveled to 18 states and headlined 45 events for 26 candidates. More than half lost.
Clinton had expected the results to be bad, but not this bad.
Democrats had run scared, she concluded. The party had done little to defend its accomplishments on the economy and health care, and done even less to argue what Democrats wanted to do in the future.
As her party grappled with the sweeping defeats, Clinton plunged into discussions about her own potential campaign. Part of what she weighed was how to run a modern, technologically sophisticated campaign, an implicit acknowledgement of her 2008 operation's failings.
Among those she consulted with were veterans of Obama's White House runs: former campaign manager David Plouffe, ground game guru Jennifer O'Malley Dillon, and digital director Teddy Goff.
At the same time, Clinton convened long economic discussions that centered on income inequality and the widening achievement gap. Foreign policy experts gave her their diagnosis of pressing problems in the Middle East and with Russia. Clinton took hand-written notes and stockpiled multi-page memos.
"She wanted to be satisfied that she had a set of policies and ideas that could really make a difference for people and she had a theory of change to get them done," said John Podesta, her new campaign's chairman. "She went pretty deep."
The political data Clinton consumed underscored the demographic advantages the Democratic Party has built up among Hispanics, African-Americans and women. Clinton might even be able pick off one or two percent more of the white vote and women than Obama.
What resonated with Clinton more than the policy papers and the polling were appeals to her sense of duty, a hallmark of her Methodist upbringing in the Midwest. She was by far the most qualified Democrat to run, supporters argued. If she didn't run, what other Democrat could win?
"If a young Bill Clinton was out there today and she saw that and believed in that person's ideas, character and competence, I am absolutely convinced she would not run," de Rothschild said.
There was plenty that gave Clinton pause. She grimaced at the thought of giving up her privacy again. She worried about putting Chelsea, husband Marc and their baby in the spotlight. She felt bad that her candidacy would crowd out Vice President Joe Biden, a longtime friend who was also toying with a White House run.
Clinton was also mindful of chatter that she could be challenged from her party's liberal left flank. She set up a meeting with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose anti-Wall Street positions were galvanizing progressives and stoking talk that she could launch her own 2016 campaign. The meeting was as much an opportunity for Clinton to gauge the mood of progressives as it was a chance to size up the seriousness of Warren's repeated denials of a White House run.
A less talked-about concern was health, both hers and her husband's. The former president had undergone quadruple bypass surgery and had to make drastic lifestyle changes. Hillary Clinton would be 69 years old on Election Day, tying Ronald Reagan as the oldest American to be elected president if she won.
Clinton had been paying attention to her health - eating better, working out with a personal trainer, telling friends she would pace herself more if she ran another campaign. But there were sure to be lingering questions about the concussion and blood clot she suffered in her final weeks at the State Department.
By December, most of Clinton's anxieties had been resolved. Her private deliberations over the holidays would put to rest her internal debate.
The oft-repeated mantra of Clinton's growing campaign team is that this time will be different.
Many of the problematic senior advisers who stoked division and drama in her first campaign have been left behind. She has poached liberally from the younger generation of operatives who have worked for Obama. Despite having no serious primary challenge, she is running from the cloak of inevitability that helped drag down her last campaign and is planning to run aggressively in places like Iowa and New Hampshire.
But many of the potential pitfalls and risks Clinton weighed for months haven't gone away.
Revelations that she used a personal email and private server throughout her time at the State Department revived questions of secrecy and questionable ethics that have long dogged her and her husband. Her slow and defensive public response ran counter to aides' claims that they better understood the fast-paced media landscape and would be less defensive with the press.
The matter also reinvigorated Republican lawmakers' investigations into the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, while Clinton was secretary of state. She'll likely have to testify before Congress in the coming weeks.
Friends fret over whether Clinton will let voters see the warm and funny woman they say they know, the one who is the first to call when a family member dies, the one who loves to gossip and play matchmaker for young staffers. More than two decades in the national spotlight have left her guarded and deeply protective of her privacy, a wildly famous figure who remains a mystery.
"On the one hand, they love the fact that she's a celebrity politician. On the other hand they're like, "she's not like me, she's not real,'" Minyon Moore, a longtime political adviser to the Clintons, said of voters. "Hopefully people will get to know the real Hillary Clinton who cares deeply about our country without pretense."
Between nature walks with Clinton during a recent visit to northern California, her friend Susie Tompkins Buell asked her whether she was ready to put her life back under the microscope.
"She just throws her head back and her hands up and rolls her eyes," Buell said. "She's really prepared for this, for the onslaught. She's going into this with her eyes wide open."
Julie Pace is the White House correspondent for The Associated Press.