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Hillary Clinton turns to Twitter to test the waters

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Hillary Clinton is testing the waters on Twitter, increasingly turning to the social networking site to inject herself into the daily political conversation as she prepares to launch her all-but-certain presidential campaign in the coming weeks.

It’s an easy way to distract—at least briefly—from the lingering questions about her reliance on a personal email account during her time as secretary of state, and to test out her message with supporters, opponents and the media.

At the same time, it’s an easily controlled medium where she can limit herself to a few words and have a big impact.

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Her latest shots came Tuesday night, as she offered a critique on the House GOP budget unveiled earlier in the day, which proposes $5.5 trillion in cuts over the next decade and would repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA).

“Budgets reflect our priorities. They should help families get ahead, educate our kids, and spark small business growth,” she said in her first tweet of the night.

In another message, she added: “Our nation’s future—jobs & economic growth—depends on investments made today. The GOP budget fails Americans on these principles.”

In two subsequent tweets, she criticized Republicans’ proposals to cut Pell Grants and to kill the health care law.

While they’re by no means earth-shattering comments coming from a Democrat with clear presidential aspirations, Clinton’s tweets are a means of signaling that she’s engaged in the politics of the moment, even as she stays out of the early states and limits her interactions with the media. They’re also a quick and clean way for her to go after some of the many Republicans who have been going after her.

“It’s good that she and her team are beginning to engage more,” said Jim Manley, the former top communications adviser to Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid. “But a couple of tweets does not make a policy agenda and is far from active engagement with the media.”

But, he said, it’s a logical medium for Clinton to turn to as she operates with a small full-time communications team with only one on-the-record spokesman.

Clinton has a bigger bullhorn on Twitter than any of her potential rivals, Democratic or Republican. She has just short of 3 million followers, while Vice President Joe Biden has 753,000 followers on his political account and the Republicans with the largest followings—Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie—barely break the half-million mark.

And it’s her only social media platform for getting her message out there. There’s no official Hillary Clinton Facebook page or Instagram account, at least not yet. (And, if she were to start Snapchatting or Meerkatting, that would itself be part of the story, about her expanding her presence ahead of her likely campaign.)

Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill declined to comment on his boss’ tweeting habits. At this point, he said in statement shared with several media outlets over the past day or so, Clinton “hasn’t made a decision about running” and “is currently ‘testing the waters,’” as the Federal Elections Commission calls it.”

As she tests the waters, she’s also testing messages on Twitter.

On Monday, she lamented congressional Republicans’ “trifecta against women”—including blocking a vote on attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch by insisting that a human trafficking bill include anti-abortion provisions.

While Clinton’s Twitter presence has intensified as her likely campaign launch nears, she’s occasionally before used the social media service in the same way.

After New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie voiced some skepticism about vaccines in early February, she tweeted: “The science is clear: The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork. Let’s protect all our kids. #GrandmothersKnowBest.”

Not surprisingly, Republicans aren’t impressed.

“With each partisan attack, Hillary Clinton is making clear she intends to run a divisive and negative campaign so that she can give President Obama’s failed agenda a third term,” Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Short said.

Clinton also used Twitter earlier this month in an effort to push back on the questioning of her decision to use a private e-mail account and server while at the State Department, setting up an inconvenient juxtaposition with her iconic avatar photo, which shows her sitting on a military plane, sunglasses on and BlackBerry in hand.

Clinton’s few public appearances in recent weeks have been carefully stage-managed and not particularly political. The one exception was her United Nations press conference last week, where she prefaced her defense of her e-mail practices with an attack on the 47 Senate Republicans who signed a letter to Iran aiming to undermine the Obama administration’s nuclear talks.

Clinton spoke to an Irish-American group on Monday and will on Thursday travel to Atlantic City for what’s expected to be her final paid speech before launching her campaign, to the American Camp Association of New York and New Jersey.

More tweets will be on the way, too, though Democrats hope she’ll branch out beyond communicating 140-characters at a time.

“Folks are looking for a lot more than a handful of tweets,” Manley said.

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