The final steak fry: Honoring Harkin with a large helping of politics

Hillary Clinton headlines Iowa steak fry
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Story highlights

  • Harkin Steak Fry is a must-attend event for Democratic candidates in Iowa
  • This year's steak fry will be the last after 42 years
  • Hillary Clinton is headlining the event.
  • It takes place on a field in Indianola, 30 minutes south of Des Moines
When Tom Harkin supporters Joan and Gary Kiernan decided to throw the congressional candidate a fundraiser in 1972, they charged $2 for the ticket, picked up the costs for the steak, salad and baked potatoes and gave the funds raised to Harkin's campaign. Reported attendance: 20 people.
Forty-two years, 37 Harkin Steak Fry events and countless pounds of beef later, the event that started as a small fundraiser for a little-known congressional candidate has turned into the most important political event in Iowa and a must-stop for Democrats thinking about a run for the presidency."
Harkin himself declared his candidacy for president at the event in 1991, putting the event on the presidential map. Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton came to Iowa the next year to address 5,000 excited Iowa supporters at the most attended event to date.
In 2006, then-Sen. Barack Obama spoke at the steak fry, delivering a speech that helped catapult him into presidential contention. Obama was back in 2007, joined by Hillary Clinton and other Democratic contenders vying for the presidency. More than 15,000 people attended the 2007 event.
Clinton went on to finish a disappointing third in 2008, a finish that was an early sign of things to come for her first presidential run. But she will be back this year for the final installment of the steak fry; Harkin is retiring from the Senate next year.
Bill and Hillary Clinton are headlining Sunday's event, raising the specter that the former first lady and secretary of state will consider running for president in 2016. Clinton has admitted she is considering a run and this weekend will be the first time she visits Iowa -- the critically important first-in-the-nation caucus state -- in six years.
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Republicans are hoping to remind Iowans of that failure, but with 2016 hopes anew, Clinton's most ardent supporters are starting to organize in Iowa.
Ready for Hillary, a super PAC urging Clinton to run for president and staffed by some of her former aides, has been running phone banks in Iowa and Washington, D.C., urging Democrats to buy tickets and attend the event.
The night before the event, Executive Director Adam Parkhomenko said the PAC would make its first donation to a campaign. It will max its donation to Bruce Braley, giving the Senate hopeful $2,600 at a fund-raiser.
The group has also purchased a billboard in Des Moines, plans to bus supporters from local colleges to the event and will hand out lawn signs and free T-shirts.
"Ready for Hillary and our supporters look forward to honoring Sen. Tom Harkin's legacy and continuing our work to support Iowa Democrats in 2014," the group said in an email to supporters, making no mention of Clinton's possible 2016 bid.
But the group has also committed an undisclosed, sizable amount of money to promoting the event. Ready for Hillary will have 100 volunteers at the steak fry, some of whom have flown in from around the country.
The PAC is committed to not only bus students from local colleges, but will also pay their entry fee for the event.
There is a reason for this spending. While a spokesman for the group said they consider it "an investment in Iowa and organizing here," Ready for Hillary also will receive the names of all the event attendees in a swap with the state Democratic Party. Those emails will in turn be used to organize future PAC events in the Hawkeye State.
"I think it is fair to say that this last steak fry was going to be an iconic event no matter what," said Jerry Crawford, who served as Hillary Clinton's Midwest co-chair during her 2008 campaign. "But now with Bill and Hillary Clinton both there, it probably becomes the more important event in Iowa Democratic party history."
Crawford added, "If people leave the steak fry thinking Bill and Hillary Clinton were very genuine, they will be the big winners."
Hillary Clinton is currently leaps and bounds ahead of other possible 2016 challengers. A CNN/ORC poll out Friday found that Clinton 53% of all registered Democrats contacted in Iowa said they would support Hillary Clinton if the 2016 caucuses were held today. That is more than triple the amount of support that any of her other would-be competitors would receive.
Organizers anticipate 5,000 people will attend the steak fry but say they are planning for more in case the weather is "gorgeous." A ticket to the event costs $30, and the proceeds will be split evenly between Harkin's PAC and the state party. More than 200 journalists have requested credentials to cover the event.
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"It will be a Tom Harkin weekend," said Teresa Vilmain, Clinton's state director in 2008 and a longtime Iowa operative.
Held on an idyllic farm in Indianola, 30 minutes south of Des Moines, the event is part fundraiser, part pep rally, part barbecue.
Nothing at the event is actually fried; the steaks are grilled. And while jokes have been made -- "My only advice to you is don't eat the steak, get the chicken," said one political analyst, who requested anonymity to freely discuss the quality of the food -- the event has been more about raising funds for the state party and Harkin.
Iowa Democrats this year have close races up and down the ticket, including for Harkin's seat in the Senate, where Democrat Bruce Braley and Republican Joni Ernst are in a dead heat, according to a recent CNN/ORC poll.
State Democratic Party Chair Scott Brennan said he expects -- and hopes -- the focus of the event will be on rallying the base ahead of November's elections. Brennan echoed the idea that Clinton won't address 2016 -- "You never know," he added as a caveat -- but noted that Clinton's attendance will still help if she chooses to run.
"Whether it is raining or cold or hot, it is just the fact that people show up," Brennan said. "These are the people who knock on doors, make phone calls. These are the people who work. It is important because you get a chance to connect with these core activists."
With the steak fry going away, there will be a noticeable gap in the Iowa political calendar every fall.
Though many strategists argue that it is impossible to replace the steak fry given its reputation and history, some have pointed to Senate candidate Braley's annual "Bruce, Blue and BBQ" event that happens every fall.
"That would be a logical successor," said Brennan.