The eyes of the political world turned to Iowa on Sunday as Hillary Clinton took the stage at the 37th-and-final Harkin Steak Fry, a political cattle-call and Democratic fundraiser spearheaded by longtime Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.
Clinton, joined onstage by her husband, former President Bill Clinton, began her speech with an ebullient, “I’m baaaack!”
If those watching were hoping that Clinton would take a step closer to confirming a 2016 presidential bid, though, they were likely disappointed. But that didn’t stop the former secretary of state from teasing the audience with the possibility.
“When Tom Harkin called and asked me to come, I have to admit, I wasn’t sure what to say. I’ve got a few things on my mind these days,” she said with a knowing grin as the audience laughed and applauded. She mentioned the imminent arrival of her grandchild, and then clearly nodded at the 2016 buzz.
“Then of course there’s that other thing,” she said. “It is true, I am thinking about it. But for today, that is not why I’m here. I’m here for the steak.”
Clinton offered ample praise for President Obama during her speech, dashing speculation that she might use the opportunity to distance herself from the relatively unpopular president.
“When it comes to moving America forward, we know what it takes,” she said. “We’ve seen it. We’ve seen it in Tom Harkin, we’ve seen it in Bill Clinton, and we have seen it in Barack Obama.”
“Under President Obama’s leadership, our country is on the road to recovery,” she continued. “Here in Iowa, for example, exports are up. For farmers, they are way up. Unemployment is down….renewable energy production has quadrupled in Iowa, which means more jobs and a cleaner environment.”
She even bear-hugged President Obama’s signature health-care reform legislation, which remains controversial among Republicans. “Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies have been forced to refund more than $1.7 million to Iowan families,” she said.
But for all the “progress we’ve made,” Clinton said, “President Obama and the rest of us would be quick to say we still have a lot of work to do.”
She cited the rising gap between economic growth and wage growth, saying that for too many families, “maintaining a middle class life feels like pushing a boulder uphill every single day. That is not how it’s supposed to be in America.”
And she exhorted the Democrats in attendance to turn out for November’s midterm elections, saying much is riding on the outcome.
“In just 50 days, Iowans have a choice to make…between the guardians of gridlock and the champions of shared opportunity and shared prosperity,” she said. “We Democrats are for raising the minimum wage, for equal pay for equal work, for making college and technical training affordable, for growing the economy to benefit everyone, and our opponents are not.”
She said she understands the impulse to tune in during presidential cycles, but she urged the audience to participate in the midterms as well.
“Too many people only get excited about presidential campaigns. Look, I get excited about presidential campaigns too,” she said, again winking at her potential bid.
And she closed her speech with a barely-veiled promise that she’d be back in the Hawkeye State before too long. “It’s really great to be back,” she said. “Let’s not let another 7 years go by.”
Clinton was introduced at the event by her Harkin, who said she did a “great job” as secretary of state, and predicted there are “many more chapters to be written in the amazing life of Hillary Clinton.”
And after she spoke, Bill Clinton seized the podium, praising Harkin’s leadership in the Senate and excoriating tea party Republicans for fleeing compromise and sowing gridlock on Capitol Hill.
Several Democratic congressional candidates who spoke at the top of the event also rallied the crowd on Clinton’s behalf.
“Are you ready for Hillary?” roared Pat Murphy, who’s running in Iowa’s first district.
The speech at the steak fry marked Clinton’s first return to Iowa since the 2008 presidential campaign, and she certainly arrived at the event with plenty to prove. After all, it was her disappointing third-place finish in the 2008 Iowa caucuses that began the slow unraveling of her presidential campaign as she watched then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, vault past her to win the caucuses and eventually secure the nomination.
Many even credited Mr. Obama’s strong performance at the steak fry in 2006 for lighting a fire under his candidacy, turning a freshman senator into a genuine contender and exposing the first cracks in the vaunted Clinton machine.
Clinton nodded at Obama’s steak fry performance in her speech. ” It does really feel just like yesterday when I was last here at the Harkin Steak Fry,” she said. “As I recall, there was a young Senator from Illinois there at the same time. And I wonder whatever happened to him?”
This time around, if she runs, Clinton will begin the primary in an even more commanding position than she did in 2008. A CNN/Opinion Research poll released this week showed her with a commanding 38 point lead in the 2016 Iowa caucuses, securing 53 percent support to Vice President Biden’s 15 percent, and national polls similarly show Clinton all but running away with the nomination.
She’s also received an early assist from an outside Super PAC, “Ready for Hillary,” that has already raised millions of dollars to support her potential candidacy. That group was out in force at the steak fry, distributing swag, gathering supporters, and providing an early sign of grassroots enthusiasm behind Clinton’s prospective bid.
Clinton has said she’s unlikely to make an announcement about a run this year, saying she’s focused on helping Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections and she’ll decide on 2016 early next year.