- With Bill at her side, Hillary Clinton attends the 37th and final Harkin Steak Fry
- The questions on everyone's mind: Will she run, and what did she learn from 2008?
- Hillary Clinton is reluctant to chat it up with reporters, but she gave it a go Sunday
- While she leads in the polls, other names come up: Biden, Warren, O'Malley
"It's been seven years, and a lot has changed," Hillary Clinton said Sunday in her first visit to Iowa since the state dealt her presidential campaign a devastating body blow.
But there was a moment in the afternoon when it seemed like not much had.
Roughly 200 credentialed media were gathered in a far corner of the Indianola Balloon Field, the grassy expanse where Sen. Tom Harkin was convening his 37th and final Steak Fry, an annual fundraiser that doubles as a point of entry for ambitious Democrats curious about the Iowa caucuses.
After a 90-minute wait, the press scrum -- scribblers and photographers alike -- were herded like cattle through a series of gates and escorted up to a hot smoking grill, waiting to capture the same image: a staged shot of Bill and Hillary Clinton, fresh out of their motorcade, ritualistically flipping steaks with Harkin.
The Clintons ignored the half-hearted shouted questions from reporters -- "Mr. President, do you eat meat?" -- with practiced ease. They were two football fields away from the nearest voter. Mechanical, distant, heavy-handed: The afternoon spectacle felt a lot like Hillary's 2008 caucus campaign, a succession of errors that crumbled under the weight of a feuding top-heavy staff and the candidate's inability to connect with her party's grassroots.
And then the head fake -- and something different.
After a few minutes, the Clintons walked into a nearby barn, out of view. Most of the media swarm gave up and hustled back to the main event, where nearly 7,000 Democrats were eating red meat and waiting patiently in the sunshine to hear from two of the most famous people in the world.
A few dozen press were still milling about when the duo re-emerged. "There she is!" a television reporter screamed, clamoring for her cameraman.
An early moment of engagement
There she was. Bill, too, walking along a fence and gabbing with a small army of political reporters, a chore that has never come easy for Hillary Clinton, and one she has assiduously avoided since leaving the State Department.
It's hardly a shock that the voluble ex-President handled a rope line full of reporters with gusto. But the willingness of the more reticent Hillary Clinton to thrust herself into the gaping maw of the hungry press dragon signaled, perhaps, that she and her aides are eager for a fresh start in Iowa, and with the national media, if she runs for president once again. She kept both the state and the press at arm's length during her last campaign, with troublesome consequences.
On Sunday, though, she gave it a go -- an early moment of engagement with the media and voters that revealed an understanding of past mistakes, but also the difficult road ahead if she takes the 2016 plunge.
"Good to see you!" she told the assembled press, surely a half-truth. "My goodness! You guys having a good time? Good. We're having a good time today."
Strutting back and forth, Clinton declared that it was "fabulous to be back" in the state. "I love Iowa," she said, smiling as if she were in on a joke. She entertained and swatted away a bombardment of questions, mostly of the unremarkable "will you run?" variety.
"Does this whet your appetite for another campaign?" asked one reporter.
"We're here to help Democrats," Clinton responded, offering requisite praise for Iowa's Democratic candidates, Senate hopeful Bruce Braley, gubernatorial challenger Jack Hatch and congressional candidate Staci Appel.
This long-awaited interaction, so craved by the access-starved political press, was short-lived. Never quite at ease in these situations, Clinton milled about for five minutes or so, keeping a few feet between herself and the press, before walking back into the secure barn.
The other Clinton -- now he likes to talk
Bill Clinton, meanwhile, was having at it, holding court with reporters for a good 20 minutes -- much of it with MSNBC host Ed Schultz -- while his wife, the presumed candidate-in-waiting, was nowhere in sight.
Bill sidled up with Harkin and held forth with the press on all manner of topics: the '92 campaign, the prospect of being a grandparent, the scourge of outside money in political campaigns, the Arkansas and Georgia governor's races, a recent visit to Atlanta.
After their futile yelps of "Last question!" and "We gotta go" were ignored over and over again, aides finally dragged the former President away.
Then it was time to meet the voters.
Hillary Clinton's speech to the sun-drenched crowd, more workmanlike than impassioned, was littered with Iowa pleasantries and nods to the last campaign, including her opening line: "Hello Iowa! I'm back!" She lavished praise on Harkin and, after a warm-up that included nods to her time as Secretary of State and her "constant grandchild watch," urged the audience to get behind Iowa's slate of Democratic candidates.
Her biggest applause lines were about women's issues -- equal pay and abortion rights -- a departure from the 2008 race in which she avoided focusing on her gender and the history-making nature of candidacy.
The crowd was firmly in her corner, thanks in large part to the super PAC "Ready For Hillary," which plastered every nook and cranny of the rural setting with "READY" signs and bused in an army of volunteers to collect email addresses and phone numbers from arriving Democrats.
Bill Clinton laughingly called the young organizers "Energizer bunnies."
Leading in the polls, but ...
She leads the early polls here by a wide margin, but there is still fault to be found with Clinton among Iowa Democrats.
Conversations reveal that some of them skew more liberal than Clinton on economic and foreign policy issues. Others want a fresh face and see the 66-year-old Clinton as an avatar of the past. And there are those who just say they'd like to see a competitive race, for the sake of "the process," even if Clinton ultimately wins the nomination.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley has been welcomed warmly during his three visits to the state this year. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont socialist threatening to seek the nomination, also drew respectable crowds during a trip here timed to coincide with the Clinton show.
Vice President Joe Biden will be in Des Moines later this week.
Supporters of progressive Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who promises not to run, ran a booth near the entrance and distributed several hundred T-shirts and bumper stickers.
Brenda Brink drove down from Ames and decked herself out in "Ready 4 Warren" gear, availing herself to any reporter willing to listen.
"Hillary is fine, she has done her duty, but she doesn't inspire me anymore," she said. "She is aligned with the banking industry. But, you know, the Democratic Party is behind her." Despite her lament, Brink said she'd received many-a-thumbs up during the day.
'This time, she will make history'
The fields of Indianola, however, were firmly Clinton turf on Sunday.
"She was wonderful," Sue LaPlante, a certified nursing assistant from Des Moines, said after the speech. "If she runs, she will be the next president."
"Hillary was a good candidate last time, but sometimes it's what fate throws at you, and Barack Obama was making history," said Irene Hardisty, a 61-year old mortgage finance specialist from Des Moines. "This time she will make history."
Everyone here -- operative, activist, politician, reporter -- has a theory about why Clinton finished third in Iowa in 2008. And there are no shortages of bright ideas about how she can perform better in 2016. But there is universal agreement from rank-and-file Democrats that Clinton has to "touch and feel" Iowans, listen to them, talk one-on-one and get outside the security and media bubble that surrounds her everywhere she goes.
She gave that a go, too, working the rope line after her speech for half an hour in the baking sun, signing copies of "Hard Choices," awkwardly posing for selfies and saying thank you to the many people demanding she run for president.
It wasn't a perfect show.
At times, as her Secret Service detail and her aide Huma Abedin escorted her along the crowd, she looked like she'd rather be elsewhere. She ignored questions from not-so-friendly crowd members who wanted her to comment on the President's immigration policy, recovery funds for Superstorm Sandy or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Then it was back to the motorcade.
But she put in the effort -- and got her first real taste of what's to come if she decides to do this campaign thing all over again.