By Amanda Becker
MONTICELLO, Iowa, April 14 (Reuters) - Democrat Hillary Clinton blasted executive pay and tax rates for hedge-fund managers on Tuesday, using the first stop of her low-key campaign rollout in Iowa to highlight her promise to help Americans struggling toward economic recovery.
Clinton, who launched her 2016 White House bid on Sunday, held a roundtable discussion with a small group of students and educators and said she wants to "begin a conversation" with Americans on the road to the election.
"There is something wrong when hedge fund managers pay lower tax rates than nurses or the truckers that I saw on I-80 as I was driving here over the last two days," Clinton said, perched on a stiff metal chair in the automotive shop of a community college.
Clinton also repeated her concerns, first voiced on Sunday, that chief executives make 300 times more than the average worker, and sympathized with students discussing the high cost of a college education.
"People are struggling," Clinton said at Kirkwood Community College. "I want to stand up and fight for people so they can not just get by, but they can get ahead and stay ahead."
For Clinton it was the first test of her 2016 campaign strategy to avoid big crowds early on and focus on intimate settings where she can interact directly with voters.
Aides hope the approach will counter the perception of entitlement that haunted Clinton's failed 2008 presidential bid and answer criticism that she is out of touch with the everyday concerns of voters.
Clinton's Iowa campaign manager, Matt Paul, told reporters they would see the candidate in much smaller settings than expected. "We want to listen," Paul said.
On Tuesday, that left Clinton sitting at a table, smiling and chatting with a small group of students, an instructor and the community college's president.
Clinton touted a four-part agenda to strengthen families, bolster the economy, improve U.S. security and resolve the political dysfunction of Washington, including removing anonymous big-money donations from the system even if that required a constitutional amendment.
Afterwards, the former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state smiled cheerfully as students and teachers gathered around for a photo with one of the most recognizable women in the world.
Clinton rolled into Iowa after a two-day, 16-hour ride from her home in Chappaqua, New York. She managed to mostly stay out of the media glare during the trip in a converted van, accompanied by a few aides and a security detail.
But that changed once she reached Iowa, a political battleground that holds the first presidential nominating contest in early 2016. Her first stop was a coffee shop in Le Claire, Iowa, where journalists and onlookers watched her order a masala chai tea.
She then spent an hour talking to a young mother, high school student and college student out of the earshot of journalists before taking a short walk with the local mayor.
Clinton returns to Iowa as the commanding Democratic front-runner and the only declared candidate for the party's presidential nomination in 2016.
But she will have to overcome memories of her losing campaign in the state in 2008, when she finished third behind then-Senator Barack Obama and former Senator John Edwards.
Clinton plans another campaign event with small business owners in Iowa on Wednesday. (Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)