NEW YORK — Hillary Clinton took the stage on New York City’s Roosevelt Island Saturday, looking to offer hundreds of supporters her answer to the question that has dogged her presidential campaign through its first two months: Why?
The Democratic frontrunner in the 2016 race used the stirring geography of the narrow island in New York City’s East River to make a case for new economic policies designed to benefit the middle class — and present herself as the candidate to make them happen.
“Prosperity can’t be just for CEOs and hedge fund managers,” Clinton told the crowd. “Democracy can’t be just for billionaires and corporations. Prosperity and democracy are part of your basic bargain, too. You brought our country back. Now it’s time, your time, to secure the gains and move ahead. And you know what? America can’t succeed unless you succeed.”
The rally marks Clinton’s departure from the low-key and carefully choreographed small roundtable events that she’s held in the first states to vote in the presidential nominating contest — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — since announcing her candidacy in April.
Supporters began lining up at 6:30 a.m. for a rally that wouldn’t begin until four hours later. Media flocked onto the narrow island, with 550 journalists requesting credentials.
And Clinton’s aides welcomed the attention, billing the rally as the real launch of her campaign — and of the case she’ll make to voters for the next year and a half.
“This will be a new moment. We have had the spring training, now it is opening day,” campaign chairman John Podesta told CNN. “I think, for us, this is an opportunity to lay out really the operating manual for where she wants to take the country.”
Clinton’s speech was not a detailed rollout of the policies that she’ll advance over the course of the campaign. Instead, the former secretary of state previewed a list of critical policy issues while unveiling the specifics of how she’d tackle those issues over the course of the summer.
Saturday’s event will also be a chance for Clinton to introduce herself to a large media audience. The former first lady is nearly universally known, but aides hope she will be able to ask herself in a different, softer light.
“She is a well-known figure but when you’re asking the American people to support you as president, even if it is for the second time, there is no skipping of steps,” said Jennifer Palmieri, the campaign’s communications director. “If you want to understand Hillary Clinton, and what has motivated her career of fighting for kids and families, her mother is a big part of the story.”
In that effort, the entire day will focus on Clinton. Although both Bill and Chelsea Clinton attended — the first time either will appear at a campaign event — they will not be the focus and are not expected to speak.
Some of Clinton’s high-profile supporters flocked to the city for Saturday’s rally, too.
Kasim Reed, mayor of Atlanta, told CNN that he decided to attend the event because he wants to “stand with Secretary Clinton.”
“I think that people have really been waiting for this aspect of the campaign to begin,” Reed said. “There is an enormous amount of pent up energy to get on with the campaign and go on our and making the case to folks why she should be the 45th president.”
But well-known New York Democratic figures weren’t treating Clinton as their party’s presumptive nominee.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio didn’t attend the rally in his own backyard, saying he’s waiting for Clinton to present a “larger vision” for tackling income inequality.
Republicans, looking to seize on the media attention around Clinton’s event, bused supporters north from Washington on Saturday morning, with many leaving at 5:45 a.m. They handed out information about Clinton, including red sunglasses that say “Stop Clinton” and “Shady.”
GOP presidential contenders, meanwhile, offered pre-buttals before Clinton even took the stage.
“Hillary Clinton’s re-launch of her campaign doesn’t change that her views are out-of-touch with mainstream America,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said in a statement.
“We don’t need Washington telling us what to do; we need to build the economy from the ground up with government getting out of the way,” he said. “Clinton would be a third term of Obama’s failed policies. Instead, we need new, fresh solutions.”
The campaign rally was largely organized by Greg Hale, a long-time Clinton aide, who grew up in DeQueen, Arkansas, and met the Clintons when he was young. He started doing advance work for Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign and is the Clintons’ go-to person for staging events like Saturday’s.
The day’s hour-and-15-minute pre-program was filled with symbolic acts and speaker.
A drumline from Brooklyn, where the campaign is headquartered, performed, and Andrea Gonzales, a “Dreamer” from Houston, Texas, also addressed the audience.
As attendees streamed into the rally, music from Clinton’s recently-announced Spotify playlist blared from large speakers. The playlist, which is intended to serve as the soundtrack for Clinton’s campaign, includes hits like Katy Perry’s “Roar” and Pharrell William’s “Happy.”
Hillary Clinton also joined Pericope, a live-streaming phone app, on Saturday. One of her newest campaign hires, famed Olympic skater Michelle Kwan, hosted Clinton’s Periscope stream of the event.
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.