Hillary Rodham Clinton returned Sunday to Iowa for the first time since her devastating loss in the state’s 2008 presidential caucuses and dropped a few hints but nothing definite about her intentions regarding another run in 2016.
“I’m baa-ack!” the former secretary of State said as she greeted an audience of several thousand Democratic activists gathered on a sodden hot-air-balloon field outside Des Moines for the annual steak fry hosted by retiring U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin.
“It is true. I am thinking about it,” Clinton said, without saying exactly what she meant by “it.” The crowd knew, however, and roared.
“But for today, that is not why I’m here,” Clinton went on, as the audience groaned. “I’m here for the steak.”
When last seen in Iowa, Clinton had just finished a humiliating third in the caucuses, the kickoff event of the presidential nominating season; the debacle helped sink her front-running campaign.
This appearance, at which Clinton was accompanied by her husband, the former president, was her most overt political outing since she stepped down as secretary of State in early 2013. If her remarks were a preview of a presidential stump speech, her second White House bid will sound much like Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign.
The former first lady even used a line — championing hard-pressed Americans who “work hard and play by the rules” — that was a Bill Clinton signature. “We Democrats are for raising the minimum wage, equal pay, making college affordable, growing the economy to benefit everyone,” Hillary Clinton said.
She was careful to cant her statements toward the midterm election in November, endorsing Iowa’s Democratic ticket and urging the audience to take the contest as seriously as the next presidential race.
Each generation of Americans has done better than the one before, Clinton said, in remarks greeted politely but without terrific enthusiasm. “That’s what our country must be again,” she said. “That’s what this election is really about.”
In his speech, which clocked in just short of his wife’s 20-minute-plus remarks, the former president praised Harkin, spoke at length about his own accomplishments, and cast Republicans as standing in the way of the nation’s progress. “We’ve got to pull this country together to push this country forward,” Bill Clinton said.
Hillary Clinton’s appearance drew a small army of political journalists from around the world and an even larger contingent of Clinton supporters, rallying beneath the banner of “Ready for Hillary,” the name of a national group taking names, raising money and serving as a sort of campaign organization-in-waiting.
Although the day was supposed to be a tribute to Harkin, the Democrat who is stepping down after 40 years in Washington, it became, in effect, a gigantic pro-Clinton rally. Surrounding roads and the perimeter fence were papered with white-and-blue signs that said simply “Ready” — a message clearly understood by all in attendance.
For some, it was a reunion of sorts, albeit distant. Clair Celsi, a Clinton precinct captain in 2008, showed up in a T-shirt from that unsuccessful campaign, her chest plastered with Hillary stickers. Her hope, Celsi said, was that Clinton would look out on a sea of blue and fluorescent green “Ready” T-shirts and “take comfort knowing we’re more ready for her at the grass roots” than the last time she ran.
That said, Celsi cautioned that Clinton would need to conduct a different sort of Iowa campaign than the last, which suffered from a distinct whiff of entitlement. “She can’t swoop in again, D.C.-style,” Celsi said, noting voters here expect to meet presidential candidates up close and often.
There’s no choice, Celsi said. “After losing the last time she probably never wanted to come back to Iowa, but we’re still in the No. 1 spot. You have to play in Iowa.”
As if to answer Celsi’s criticism, Hillary Clinton spent a good half-hour after Sunday’s event shaking hands, taking pictures and signing placards for guests. She gave no further insight into her 2016 plans, but played along with those who urged her into the race.
“We’re so ready!” one fan told her.
“Thank you very much!” Clinton replied happily.
“Can I call you Madam President yet?” a man asked. “No,” Clinton replied good-naturedly. “No, no, no.”
Sunday’s cookout, on a field of brilliant emerald green, offered an Iowa restart of sorts, even if it was Clinton’s second steak fry — she spoke in 2007 — and her husband’s fourth. But she hinted the stop would not be her last.
“It’s really great to be back,” Clinton said in concluding her speech. “Let’s not let another seven years go by.”
Before speaking, the Clintons took their obligatory turns wrangling steaks as dozens of cameras recorded the moment and the couple ignored shouted questions from reporters behind a metal barricade: How’s it feel to be back in Iowa? Can she win this time, Mr. President?
Though bright, Hillary Clinton’s solo turn in the 2016 Iowa spotlight is likely to be brief.
On Wednesday, Vice President Joe Biden is planning to visit Des Moines, where he is expected to address a group of nuns launching a cross-country voter registration bus tour. Also Sunday, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a far-left independent who mainly votes with Democrats in Congress, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he was contemplating a 2016 bid for president.
He also appeared in Iowa over the weekend, but his visit drew only a small fraction of the attention devoted to the Clintons.
Times staff writers Cathleen Decker and Maeve Reston contributed to this report.