DES MOINES, Iowa – Hillary Rodham Clinton left Iowa on an “excruciating” night in 2008, the beginning of the end of her White House campaign. She returns for the first time this weekend, not quite yet running for president but sure to hear cheers from a crowd of Democrats hoping she will.
Trailed by White House speculation, and joined by her husband, former President Bill Clinton, the former secretary of state is trekking to rural Indianola to pay tribute to the retiring Sen. Tom Harkin at his final Steak Fry – a fundraiser and fixture of the state’s political calendar.
There will be plenty of talk about the upcoming midterm elections, especially the Senate race to pick Harkin’s replacement. But all eyes will be on Clinton, and whether she will come back soon – and often – to court voters once again in the first state to vote in the presidential campaign.
“I don’t want to be in a position of piling it on. This is a decision she has to make,” Harkin said Friday. “She knows how much I care about her and Bill.”
More than 5,000 people are expected at this year’s Harkin Steak Fry – the steaks are grilled, not deep-fried – making it the largest since Hillary Clinton’s last appearance in 2007, when she was joined by Barack Obama, Joe Biden and other Democrats running for president.
Her first run in Iowa began that year with a raucous public event where thousands packed into Des Moines’ East High School. But her campaign stumbled, dogged by questions about her commitment to the early-voting state.
In the spring, a memo written by a campaign aide suggesting she pull out of the caucuses and focus on other primary states was leaked to the media. The idea was rejected, but it implied she wasn’t fully committed to Iowa, which has played a pivotal role in every presidential campaign since Jimmy Carter’s surprise victory in 1976.
On caucus night, Clinton finished third and was critical of the process before departing for New Hampshire, noting in her speech that Iowans serving in the military and those who work at night couldn’t participate.
“The night of the Iowa caucuses, when I placed third, was excruciating,” Clinton wrote in her recent book, “Hard Choices.”
This weekend’s return is an opportunity for a fresh start, and she arrives in Iowa as the dominant figure in Democratic politics, along with her husband and Obama. A super PAC called Ready for Hillary has been encouraging Iowans to buy tickets for the event for weeks. The group planned to have a major presence at the Steak Fry, handing out T-shirts, signing up new supporters and shuttling in college students from around the state.
The group even placed a billboard near the Des Moines airport using the “Texts From Hillary” meme, featuring a photo of a stern-looking Clinton peering through dark sunglasses at her Blackberry while aboard a military plane. It urges motorists not to text and drive.
“I’ve always, in retrospect, felt there was a zeitgeist for Barack Obama. I think personally there’s a zeitgeist for Hillary Clinton,” said Bonnie Campbell, an Iowa chair of Clinton’s 2008 campaign. “The path is never a straight line. Assuming she makes the decision to run, this is a great way for her to come to Iowa.”
Don’t expect an announcement from Clinton at the Steak Fry – or many hints about 2016. Iowa figures prominently in the fight for the control of the Senate, and Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley is locked in a tight race for Harkin’s seat with Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst.
Organizers expect the Clintons to make a case for Braley to carry on Harkin’s legacy, and also stump for Staci Appel, a Democrat running for an open congressional seat against Republican David Young. No woman has ever been elected to Congress or governor in Iowa, a fact that Clinton has pointed to in the past as she has sought to become the nation’s first female president.
“This is about 2014. When was the last time we had this many close races all in a year?” said Troy Price, the executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party. “This is about Harkin’s legacy, and Harkin’s legacy includes a successful 2014.”
Still, this is Iowa, which means presidential politics are never really off the table. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley has made several trips to the state this year and Biden returns to Des Moines next week. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent, will appear at three town halls around Iowa this weekend, signaling the potential for a Clinton challenger and a sign that she can take nothing for granted.
“I think people want a broad range of choices,” said Hugh Espey, the executive director of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, the lead sponsor of Sanders’ events. “What I don’t think is people want someone to be anointed by the political kingmakers and queenmakers.”