By Gabriel Debenedetti
NASHUA New Hampshire (Reuters) - Long viewed as an ally by Wall Street, likely 2016 presidential contender Hillary Clinton has increasingly been taking banks and big business to task while on the campaign trail for Democrats across the country.
Many Democratic strategists see the sharper rhetoric as an effort to win over liberal critics, such as supporters of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. It comes days before Tuesday's midterm elections and as Clinton ramps up her political activity ahead of a probable White House bid.
"Al has pushed for more and better oversight of the big banks and risky financial activity," Clinton said in support of Senator Al Franken in Minnesota in late October.
"There's a lot of unfinished business to make sure we don't end up once again with big banks taking big risks and leaving taxpayers holding the bag," she said, in the starkest example yet of her populist turn.
This is a change of tone for the former New York senator, who faced criticism for her Wall Street ties as recently as September, after appearing with Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd Blankfein.
Allies and analysts see it as an effort to find the balance between populism and her familiar centrism that Clinton may need in order to broaden her appeal in a potential 2016 Democratic primary contest.
"What she's trying to do, really, is find her message. This is something that she struggled with in 2008 (while losing the Democratic nomination battle to Barack Obama), and she really didn't have to do it as secretary of state," said Brookings Institution campaign expert John Hudak.
"She's trying to thread the needle, to say to progressives, 'I'm your candidate,' but also say to Iowa Democrats, 'I'm your candidate, too.'"
Clinton, who was secretary of state from 2009-2013, has not declared her candidacy, although supporters have built a national campaign structure to await a presumed run. She says she will decide whether or not to run early next year and for now she is campaigning for others, largely in states where Obama is unpopular. Sunday's New Hampshire swing comes after Saturday stops in Louisiana and Kentucky.
But supporters of Warren, who says she does not plan to run for the White House, are still wary of Clinton, who ran as a centrist in 2008. Clinton leads Warren 60 to 17 percent in an October Reuters/Ipsos poll of Democrats in Iowa, which holds the first contest of the presidential nominating race.
Warren, a former Harvard Law School professor who spearheaded the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau after the 2008 financial crisis, has gained solid backing from liberals in the party for her steady criticism of Wall Street and big banks.
Clinton campaigned with Warren in October for Massachusetts governor candidate Martha Coakley, praising the bank regulation advocate for "giv(ing) it to those who deserve to get it." That despite the fact that she is personally close with some high-profile bankers who know her from her time representing them in the Senate, and from her experience as first lady during Bill Clinton's years as president.
In Minnesota, Clinton expanded on her economic priorities, saying that before the financial crisis "a lot of us were calling for regulating derivatives and other complex financial products, closing the carried-interest loophole, getting control of skyrocketing CEO pay."
It was a line that raised eyebrows given the deregulatory policies of Bill Clinton's administration. But progressive activists, who have criticized Hillary Clinton's practice of giving highly-paid speeches to groups including financial firms, welcome such statements.
"It's baby steps in the right direction after $200,000 speeches at Goldman Sachs," said Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
There are pitfalls to the appeals to liberals. Critics pounced after Clinton told voters in Boston last month not to "let anybody tell you that it's corporations and businesses that create jobs."
Clinton later explained that she meant to criticize the idea that the economy grows because of corporate tax breaks, but Republicans across the country, including a pair of potential Republican 2016 opponents - Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush - have since used the line against her.
(Reporting by Gabriel Debenedetti; Editing by John Whitesides and Frances Kerry)