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Where's Hillary? Not in Charlotte

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
September 5, 2012 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at the annual Pacific Islands Forum in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, on August 31.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at the annual Pacific Islands Forum in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, on August 31.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hillary Clinton, the most popular Democrat in the U.S., is in Asia tour during convention
  • It's customary for a current secretary of state to stay above politics, avoid election season
  • Frida Ghitis: Being removed puts her above it all, positioned for a 2016 run for president
  • Ghitis: Hillary insists she will not run, but Democrats are hoping fervently she will

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer/correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns

(CNN) -- Where's Hillary? Where did she go?

Don't bother looking for her this week on the podium of the Democratic National Convention. Don't try to catch a glimpse of her in the backrooms where the powerful gather or on the convention floor where delegates wave signs proclaiming their love for Obama or Clinton (the other Clinton; the husband).

No, while Democrats try to stoke the troops with passion for their party and excitement for Barack Obama's re-election, the most popular member of the Democratic Party, possibly the most popular major politician in America, will stay far away from the national spotlight, about 10,000 miles away.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is occupied with other matters, serious matters of state. No time for cheering or voter-rousing. She's keeping her distance from politics, and that might work out just fine in a few years. As Democrats started streaming to North Carolina, she jetted off to the middle of nowhere. Or, more precisely, to the Cook Islands in the Pacific. Look it up. It's far away.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis
Land disputes await Clinton in China
Hillary Clinton 'does not sweat'

By now, Hillary -- as everyone calls her unofficially (and we're speaking unofficially) -- has moved on in her busy Asian itinerary. As you read this, she may be in China, or in Timor-Leste, or perhaps Brunei. The official explanation is that she had important business and as a sitting secretary of state, she is supposed to stay above politics, above the partisan fray. Indeed, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said it is customary for the current secretary to avoid the political season, as she did in 2008.

Hillary, however, is not just any secretary of state. She is the woman who almost beat the current president for the nomination. She's the one millions hope will lead the ticket in 2016.

She is the one Democrat on everyone's mind this week even if she made it a point to move her operations to the other side of the world. Journalists will find it difficult to ask her opinion about the convention or ask the real question, the one people have not stopped asking in four years: Will she run for president in 2016?

The standard answer is that she has no interest in running again and looks forward to private life after Obama's first term. But few people believe she has made that decision. The reluctance to take her at her word stems partly from the stunning phenomenon of worldwide popularity that Hillary Clinton has become.

For every one of the past 10 years, Americans have ranked her the Most Admired Woman, ahead even of Oprah when she had her show. Hillary is probably among the most popular women in the history of the United States, having won the title 16 times, more than any other woman.

She consistently scores the highest approval ratings of any top member of the Obama administration, and she has developed an extraordinary level of personal rapport with the masses, with the millions who have never met her but have seen her evolve over the decades.

People feel an emotional connection after having witnessed the visible pain she endured during her husband's public cheating scandals. They watched her raise her chin, battle adversity and come out ahead. Everyone knows it has not been easy.

Liberated from campaigning, she has relaxed. She has become more spontaneous and genuine, leaving behind some of the calculated deliberateness of the politician. Hillary's most private moments seem to fill her admirers with vicarious joy. When images surface of her dancing or drinking a beer during a break from work in Colombia, they immediately go viral. As if people felt glad that she's happy.

The Internet parody "Texts from Hillary" became all the rage, as it purported to show the ubercompetent SecState whipping the world into line. In one image, President Obama, stretched out on a couch, sends a text, "Hey Hil. Whatchu doing?" Hillary, looking stylish in shades, with giant briefing books before her, texts back: "Running the world."

It's a joke, but it's funny because it reflects an image that has taken hold. Hillary seems to work harder than anyone. She has traveled to more countries -- 108 so far -- than any of her predecessors. She's always at it. And it always seems important. The mere mortals, the regular politicians, are out campaigning, telling half-truths and slinging mud. Hillary's busy, working to keep the world running.

As secretary of state, she is in a perfect position to work on issues that are much less controversial than domestic dilemmas. She doesn't need to talk about tax increases, health care reform or the deficit. She doesn't have to spar with the Republicans and look petty or nasty in the process.

It makes her look superior to the others. It puts her in great shape for 2016, when she will be 69, not too old to run for president.

Hillary first electrified activists back in 1995, when she declared in her famous Beijing speech "it is no longer acceptable to discuss women's rights as separate from human rights." And she has never let up on her efforts on behalf of women. But men, too, even the most rugged (even Republicans) have come to respect her.

Back in 2010, when a Rolling Stone reporter quoted senior military men in Afghanistan disparaging the Obama administration, he revealed that, "Only Hillary Clinton receives good reviews."

And she has not stopped getting great reviews. Staying out of the political mud-pit, she is the subject of popularity polls, breathless speculation and gushing profiles, like a recent cover story -- complete with photo spread -- in Conde Nast Traveler. In addition to the glamor and the competence, the writer revealed "one very intimate detail that most people still don't know about Hillary Clinton." The secret? "She does not sweat. Literally. She does not even glow. No matter how high the heat, not a drop nor a drip nor a bead ..."

The polls show voters want Hillary to run again. In Iowa, a look at presidential preferences showed Hillary beating Vice President Biden 60 to 18. No one else reached 5%. In New York, voters want Hillary to run even more than they want their very popular governor to do so.

So, while the Democrats shout themselves hoarse in Charlotte, Hillary will be far away, busy with affairs of state. But don't be so sure her absence means she's not interested in politics.

Like everyone in Charlotte, she too is probably pondering what Hillary will do in 2016. She may be absent, out of sight. But staying away only makes the Democrats' heart grow fonder.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

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