DAVENPORT, Iowa — The last time Hillary Clinton visited Eastern Iowa, she was on her way to an embarrassing third-place finish in the state’s critical Democratic caucuses, which derailed her presidential ambitions.
She couldn’t have known it at the time, but there were warning signs emerging in the area. Her campaign struggled to find a overarching message here; the district’s Democratic congressman, Bruce Braley, endorsed John Edwards; and Davenport’s mayor, Bill Gluba, was an early Barack Obama supporter.
When she returned Wednesday to campaign for Braley, who is now running for Senate, Clinton was humble about her defeat here six years ago. She also took the opportunity to put out re-introductory feelers ahead of a likely second presidential run.
At a union hall in Cedar Rapids on her first stop for Braley, Clinton recalled celebrating Fourth of July in a park in the city, and touring the area after devastating flooding. She also shouted out to Teamsters in the crowd, remembering a meeting she had with the union during her presidential campaign.
Between events, Clinton and Braley made an unannounced stop in Iowa City at the Hamburg Inn, an iconic diner where the former secretary of state ordered a chocolate bourbon pecan pie milkshake, which she paid for in cash. She proclaimed the dessert “unbelievable” and visited with the locals for a few minutes.
Later in Davenport, Clinton mentioned her fond memories from “back in 2007” of attending Braley’s “Blues and Brews” event in the city.
At both stops, she drew special attention to volunteers in the audience who had been working especially hard on behalf of Democrats this year, calling them out by name and saying something personal about their dedication. “Bobby Dodd is 91-years-old and volunteering!” she said in Davenport to cheers.
She didn’t dwell on her loss, but got a bit more somber in discussing it during otherwise fiery speeches.
“I have always said that I’m impressed by the history and the beauty of this place. I’ve never forgotten how many Iowans opened up their hearts and their homes to me, here in Davenport and across the state,” she said. “That didn’t surprise me, because I don’t know any place in America that takes politics more seriously.”
“You like to test your candidates, don’t you? You want to force them to be the best they can be. I’ve experienced that myself,” she continued.
Even when touting Braley, who is running to replace retiring longtime Sen. Tom Harkin, Clinton sought to connect herself to the state. “And as someone who served for eight years in the Senate with senator Harkin, I know how well he represented you,” she said.
Clinton made her first return to Iowa since 2008 last month at the Steak Fry, an annual event hosted by Harkin. “I’m ba-ack!” she declared to thousands, include many who had been turned out by the pro-Clinton super PAC Ready for Hillary.
A recent Des Moines Register poll found Clinton with an enormous lead over the rest of the likely Democratic field, but trailing another failed presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, in a hypothetical general election matchup.