Hillary Clinton's book launch looks undeniably like the prelude to a presidential campaign, but despite growing buzz, Democrats are scraping together Plans B, C and D in case she doesn't run.
The former secretary of state has criss-crossed the country on a speaking tour. Political action committees have raised millions for her. And she has now written a risk-free memoir that does little to jostle the narrative that she circled the globe wielding a brand of firm but flexible US power.
Clinton, 66, towers over Democratic and Republican prospective challengers in poll after poll.
And if she balks?
“If Hillary doesn't run, it's an open free-for-all,” former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who ran for president 10 years ago and headed the Democratic National Committee from 2005 to 2009, told AFP in a telephone interview.
“I truly don't believe she's made up her mind. There's a good chance she won't run,” he added.
Clinton, who narrowly lost the 2008 Democratic nomination to Barack Obama, has said she will likely decide after November's mid-term elections.
But she stands accused of freezing the field until her decision is announced, a charge Clinton herself appeared to bristle at.
“No. People can do whatever they choose to do on whatever timetable they decide,” Clinton told ABC News on the eve of the Tuesday book rollout.
A handful of Democratic alternatives are already being floated, including Vice-President Joe Biden, who has acknowledged mulling another White House campaign.
Some Republicans openly mock that scenario.
“When you're talking about Joe Biden as your next best option, that's a problem,” said political strategist Kevin Madden, who served as spokesman for 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Biden “has run before a number of times and never really garnered much enthusiasm for his own candidacy”, Madden said.
Biden is 71, five years older than Clinton and 19 years older than Obama. Turning back the generational clock rarely works with American voters.
“Joe would have a tough time convincing 25-year-olds to go back another generation,” Dean said.
One of the rising Democrats is Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, who is perhaps most vocal about a 2016 run.
In February, he said he was “preparing in terms of the tough work, the policy work, the ground work necessary to offer a better direction for our country”.
Trouble is, O'Malley barely registers nationally. Sunday's ABC News-Washington Post poll showed Clinton lapping the field at 69 percent, Biden with 12 percent and O'Malley at two percent.
Brian Schweitzer, Montana's straight-talking former governor who recently told Time magazine that “of course” he would be a better president than Clinton, is down at one percent.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is also discussed as a contender, but he too is a radar blip.
Faring better at seven percent is Senator Elizabeth Warren, the anti-Wall Street crusader whose populist message and commitment to rein in corporate abuse has struck a cord with many working-class Americans.
But Warren has said she is not running - in 2016, anyway. Should she reverse course, her demonstrated fundraising prowess would position her well, although Republican analysts peg her as too leftist to win.
Still, “everybody's got to wait for Hillary... she's got the lead on the money train”, said University of Minnesota Professor Larry Jacobs, who has tracked political races for years.
Amid the will-she-or-won't-she lull, Republicans are not idle. They have attacked Clinton over her handling of the Benghazi crisis, launched websites aimed at derailing her potential candidacy and published an anti-Hillary e-book, Failed Choices.
Many Republicans simply assume Clinton is the one to beat in 2016.
“All the signals are go” for a Clinton run, observed Senate Republican Dan Coats, citing her book and her whirlwind speaking schedule.
“I'm just assuming she's going to run until she says otherwise.”
Even if Clinton pulls out, there is no well-financed Republican front-runner to put Democrats at a disadvantage, noted strategist Madden.
“Republicans still have to get our own house in order on who our nominee will be, and it is as wide open as it has been in a number of cycles,” he said. - Sapa-AFP