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For Hillary Clinton in Iowa, 6 years makes a huge difference

Hillary Clinton returns to Iowa Sunday more than six years after an excruciating loss in 2008. Is it the start of her 2016 campaign?

DES MOINES, Iowa  Hillary Clinton left Iowa 2,444 days ago as a third-place loser, an experience she called "excruciating." This weekend, she returns to the first-in-the-nation presidential voting state with almost no one standing in her way.

Clinton is set to take the stage at the final Harkin Steak Fry, an event hosted by retiring Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin that will take place late Sunday afternoon in Indianola, Iowa. Officially, Clinton's Iowa visit serves as a "thank you" to Harkin for his decades of work and for his efforts as a Democratic fundraiser.

"She's very clear about her mission coming to Iowa: They are coming to thank Tom Harkin and [wife] Ruth Harkin for their service, and they are there to rally the troops from the Democratic ticket up and down the ticket," said Teresa Vilmain, a longtime Clinton confidante who ran her Iowa campaign in 2008.

Unofficially, the Steak Fry is the starting gun for the 2016 presidential race in Iowa. Five thousand people have bought tickets to the fundraiser, where Hillary and then Bill Clinton will close out a speaking program featuring Democratic candidates, including Senate hopeful Bruce Braley. More than two hundred reporters have RSVPed. The super PAC "Ready for Hillary" has posted a billboard with Hillary Clinton's picture just outside the airport in Des Moines, and the group is holding an all-day session to organize volunteers, as well as a dinner at the Marriott downtown. Democratic operatives with Iowa ties have also descended on the state, holding events to celebrate Harkin but wondering openly about how a future Hillary Clinton campaign will be structured.

All that already has Republicans attacking like it's 2016.

"The thing that Iowans are going to expect is a presidential candidate who can sit down in their living rooms, talk the talk," Iowa GOP chairman Jeff Kaufmann told reporters. "I don't think Mrs. Clinton fits the bill ... unless there's been some kind of born again experience in her ability to interact with the common Iowan."

The farm fields of Iowa have been fraught — and sometimes foreign — territory for the Clintons. Bill Clinton didn't compete here in 1991 because Harkin, the state's favored son, was running; Harkin won Iowa with 77% of the vote.

In 2008, Hillary Clinton stumbled in her campaign when a leaked memo suggested she should simply skip Iowa and instead focus on "Super Tuesday" contests elsewhere. That was interpreted as a major slight in a place that holds deep pride in being the first to have a say in presidential politics.

"She ran a really aggressive campaign in 2008. She just sort of ran into a buzz saw with Obama..."'

In the end, Clinton competed aggressively here, though the process itself was a difficult one — Iowa voters and activists expect time consuming one-on-one interaction. She faced criticism for running a traditional, top-down campaign that prioritized winning endorsements from local political figures instead of reaching new voters. Her campaign focused primarily on trying to win over people who had come to lengthy, hours-long caucuses in previous years.

Barack Obama's 2008 campaign, meanwhile, reached out to Democrats and independents who had never caucused before. That was a new strategy.

"She ran a really aggressive campaign in 2008. She just sort of ran into a buzz saw with Obama, who ran a campaign like [one] never seen before in Iowa," said Jeff Link, a longtime Democratic strategist and Harkin adviser who was unaligned in 2008.

Operatives and activists widely say that the landscape in Iowa has changed for Clinton now, largely because there's no significant alternative candidate at this point in the emerging race. That's not to say other Democrats aren't trying. Later this week, Vice President Joe Biden will visit Iowa with Nuns on the Bus, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is in the state this weekend, and former Sen. Jim Webb paid a visit recently. In addition, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is paying more than a half-dozen staffers who are working inside the Democratic Party and for Democratic campaigns.

Several Iowa activists privately suggested that there is an appetite for a Clinton alternative among core Democrats — Braley's Senate campaign is picking up that sentiment from focus groups asked about the former secretary of state.

However, Clinton's lock on Iowa at this stage is overwhelming. Link, the Harkin adviser, points out that even the longtime Iowa senator lost almost 25% of the vote in the state's 1992 caucuses. "There will be other candidates that get a share of the vote, even if she articulates a clear message," he said.

There are also some signs that many of the voters who backed Obama in 2008 are excited about the prospect of a Clinton candidacy in 2016.

"In 2008, that hope and change message really resonated, and we really believed that people could compromise," said Chris Diebel, a key Obama supporter in Iowa in 2008 who helped with outreach to young people and the LGBT community. "Then, eight years later, you get far more pragmatic. For me, at least, it's much less about hope and change and more about, 'who's going to get in there and fight the good fight?'"