INDIANOLA, IOWA — “I’m ba-ack!” With those words, Hillary Clinton announced Sunday her return to Iowa, the state that derailed her last presidential run and will be critical to a second one, if she decides to take the plunge. And almost all of the 7,000 die-hard Democrats here at the Iowa Steak Fry — 2,000 more than expected — seemed ready to welcome her.
Many came for Tom Harkin, the venerated senator who has organized the Steak Fry for the past 37 years and is retiring this year. But even Harkin, who got choked up while thanking his supporters, acknowledged why this year’s event was the largest since 2007. “And to think you all came here to see me. Ah, who am I kidding…” he joked before introducing Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Stepping up to the stage amid chants of “Hillary! Hillary!,” the former secretary of state got 2016 right out of the way.
"I've got a few things on my mind these days,” she said to whoops of anticipation. First, there’s the grandchild that is due any day, she said, “And then, of course, there's that other thing.”
The crowd, fired up and hoping for some big news, grew anxious. “It is true, I am thinking about it. But that is not why I'm here today,” she said to audible disappointment. She then got down to the task at hand and spent the bulk of her speech praising Iowa, it’s Democratic candidates, and Harkin.
The Iowa senator heaped praise on the Clintons in turn, vouching for them “a part of our Iowa Democratic family” and the “comeback couple,” a reference to Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign — and perhaps Clinton’s return to the state where she came in an embarrassing third place in 2008.
Even on his own special day, the senator couldn’t help but hint at Hillary Clinton’s unknown future. Noting that her book, “Hard Choices,” has 25 chapters, Harkin continued there are "many more chapters to be written.” And he joked that the former president has recently been so overshadowed by his wife that he was little more than the “man who accompanied Hillary back to Iowa."
No one expected her to spend much time talking about a potential presidential bid, let alone announce one. But her reference to the future-that-shall-not-be-named was a perfect encapsulation of the big question hanging over the event, which attracted unusually large crowds and hundreds of reporters. Despite the coy allusions, the question was never addressed outright.
"I would like to see a runoff. I don’t feel there should be a coronation."'
Still, there were hints about Clinton’s difficult past everywhere in the state for those inclined to look. Clinton, who jokingly wondered about what happened to a young senator named Barack Obama with whom she shared the stage at the 2007 Steak Fry, at one point said, “When you get knocked down, get right back up.”
Ruth Harkin, Tom’s wife, and a pioneering female politician in her own right, said, “It’s great to look back, but don’t stare.”
But mostly, Clinton lauded Harkin and encouraged Iowans to vote down the party line: Bruce Braley for Senate, Jack Hatch for governor, and the rest of the Democratic ticket.
Afterward, she worked a lengthy rope line, shaking hands, taking selfies, and signing books — a rare sight for a women who has lived largely insulated by Secret Service and private airplanes since becoming secretary of state in 2009.
Thanks to the work of Ready for Hillary, the super PAC formed early last year to boost the former secretary of state, it was easy to mistake the event for a Clinton campaign rally.
The group bused in students from eight colleges and universities, had 60 volunteers handing out bumper stickers — many of which were quickly affixed to cars — and spent Saturday planting hundreds of yard signs around the National Balloon fields were the event was held. Organizers even hung giant signs from cherry pickers rented by the group. Every other attendee seemed to be wearing one of the group’s t-shirts.
"Just like Energizer Bunnies. They're everywhere," Bill Clinton said approvingly when asked at the event about the group’s efforts.
Eager to respect Harkin, most of the group’s signs said only “Ready,” while others thanked “Tom” — but it was clear who the signs were meant to support.
Nonetheless, while difficult, it was not impossible to find people who weren’t quite ready yet to sign on dotted line for Clinton. Caucus night is still more than a year away, after all.
Bert Stole, a retiree from Atalissa, was a holding an "Elizabeth Warren for President" sign, which was passed out by the super PAC Ready for Warren. “I would like to see a runoff. I don’t feel there should be a coronation,” he said. “If there is a runoff, and if Hilary wins, which probably she will, I think she will be a better candidate. The worst strategy, probably the reason why she lost to Obama, was that she walked in thinking that she owned the nomination. And that turned a lot of people off.”
Erica Sagrans, Ready for Warren’s founder, stood by the group’s small table — a far cry from Ready for Hillary’s massive infrastructure. She said her group handed out a few hundred signs and signed up about “half that” on their mailing list.
People just like Warren, Sagrans said, even if they like other candidates or are not sure if Warren should run. “In Iowa, the Caucus process isn’t as relevant if there’s only one candidate. People here take that process really seriously, and it’s still very early, so people still want to have that process and debate before they decide anything,” she said.
Clinton is hugely popular in the state, and much stronger than she was in 2008, as evidenced by the sea of Clinton supporters here Sunday and a recent CNN/ORC poll, which showed that more than 50% of Iowa Democrats support her.
At the close of her remarks, Clinton concluded, “It’s great to be back, let’s not let another seven years go by.”
She may be back very soon indeed.