CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- Hillary Clinton came to Iowa ready to fight.
The former secretary of state delivered a withering attack on Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst here Wednesday, while campaigning for Democrat Bruce Braley in the key presidential state.
Sticking close to lines of assault Braley himself has employed, Clinton slammed Ernst for refusing to sit down with newspaper editorial boards that she views as hostile.
“It truly seems like it should be disqualifying in Iowa, of all states, to avoid answering questions,” Clinton said. Ernst, who skipped meetings with some of the state's largest papers, currently holds a narrow lead in the polls ahead of next week’s election, but Democrats are hoping the editorial board flap and a superior get-out-the-vote effort will give them a last-minute boost.
Clinton, in the Hawkeye Sate for only her second visit since her presidential campaign ran aground here in 2008, was happy to help.
The once (and likely future) presidential candidate went after one of Ernst biggest strengths: her hardscrabble biography and “Iowa way” persona. “For any candidate, for any job, it’s not who you are that matters, it’s who you are for,” Clinton said.
“It’s not enough to be from Iowa, you have to be for Iowans,” Clinton continued. “It is not enough to have grown up in the middle class, you have to fight for the middle class.”
And then, pausing before the line that earned her by far the biggest applause: “It’s not enough to be a woman, you have to be committed to expand rights and opportunities for all women.”
The crowd of 400 loyal Democrats gathered at the union hall gave her sustained applause for nearly half a minute and whooped in agreement. Braley is beating Ernst among women by 8 percentage points, according to a new Quinnipiac Poll, but she leads by a larger margin among men.
But it was the editorial board meetings that Clinton kept coming back to. "[Iowans] test your candidates, you actually force them to be the best you can be. I understand that," she added with a laugh, referring to her bid.
“Ask these candidates -- or at least the one who will answer your questions,” Clinton continued. “You can’t let any of these candidates duck these questions. … Don’t let anybody hide behind outside money and negative ads.”
The Ernst campaign had its own rejoinder when asked for comment. "Congressman Braley's surrogates often don't even know his last name, so it's no surprise Hillary Clinton's facts are wrong," Ernst spokesperson Gretchen Hamel told msnbc. "Joni's priority is to meet with as many undecided voters as she can during her 99 county tour, but she is also meeting with several editorial boards."
Clinton and Iowa have a complicated relationship. After coming in third in the state’s first-in-the nation caucus in 2008, the former secretary of state left and never looked back, steering clear of the Hawkeye state for six years. But ahead of a likely presidential run in 2016, Clinton returned in September to headline the Steak Fry, an annual fundraiser for the Iowa Democratic Party hosted by retiring Sen. Tom Harkin.
On her second visit, in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, she took some time to recall “fond memories” of her time campaigning in the state. She mentioned spending the Fourth of July in the city and meeting with Teamsters here.
“So many people in Cedar Rapids and the county, and the surrounding area, opened up their hearts and their homes to me, and for that, I will always be really grateful,” she said.
Ernst was never expected to be much of a threat to Braley in the race to replace Harkin. But the charismatic National Guard commander has fired up Republicans and pulled ahead of Braley, who is weighed down by ties to Washington and what even Democrats privately admit is an unnaturalness at retail politics.
But the campaign remains confident about their chances. "Recent polling shows that the race is very tight, but all of the movement is in Bruce’s direction as we head into the final days," Campaign Manager Sarah Benzing wrote in a memo sent to reporters. "Joni Ernst hit a ceiling a few weeks ago, and polls show that Iowans are moving in Bruce’s direction and there are strong reasons to believe that this movement will only continue.”
Clinton will host a second really for Braley on Wednesday evening, this time in Davenport, and her husband will visit the state Saturday.