White House speculation in overdrive, Hillary Rodham Clinton returns to Iowa to pay tribute to the state’s retiring Democratic senator as anticipation builds over the possibility of another presidential campaign.
Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, were to headline Sen. Tom Harkin’s annual steak fry fundraiser in rural Indianola. Sunday’s event is expected to draw more than 5,000 party activists who form the backbone of Iowa’s presidential campaigns every four years.
Following a summertime book tour, Clinton was making her biggest campaign splash in 2014 so far, opening a fall of fundraising and campaigning for Democrats who are trying to maintain a Senate majority during President Barack Obama’s final two years. The event was serving as a farewell for Harkin, a liberal stalwart and former presidential candidate who is retiring after four decades in Congress.
Obama defeated Clinton in the state’s leadoff presidential caucuses in January 2008, and the former secretary of state has not returned since. Iowa Democrats said Clinton remained widely popular and predicted she would receive broad support if she chooses to run again.
“Barack Obama was a phenomenon. He just was. I’ll give him credit, he worked hard in Iowa, but so did she,” Harkin said, when asked if Clinton would do things differently in Iowa if she runs in 2016. “I don’t think she ran a bad campaign at all. I just think Obama was on a roll.”
The hotly-contested 2008 caucus created a record turnout of more than 239,000 Iowans, far above the 124,000 who participated in 2004.
The Clintons’ arrival offered the possibility of a fresh start for the former New York senator and first lady, whose campaign stumbled in the months leading up to the caucuses.
Anti-war activists opposed her vote to authorize the Iraq war in 2002 and coalesced around Obama, who had opposed the war as an Illinois state senator. Clinton was often insulated by a large entourage in a state where face-to-face retail politics has long been a hallmark of campaigns.
Clinton, who has conferred with Iowa Democrats in recent days, would enter a presidential campaign with a large advantage over potential rivals. Early polls have shown her leading other Democrats by wide margins, including Vice President Joe Biden and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Biden is traveling to Des Moines next week and has not closed the possibility of another campaign while O’Malley has made several visits to the state and dispatched staffers to Iowa this fall.
Harkin’s final steak fry was expected to be the largest since Hillary Clinton’s last appearance in 2007, when she was joined by Obama, Biden and other Democrats running for president. Bill Clinton has appeared at the event three previous times.
It was also serving as a pep rally as Democrats try to hold onto Harkin’s seat. Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley faces Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst in one of the nation’s most competitive Senate campaigns. Clinton is also expected to make the case for Staci Appel, a Democrat running in an open congressional seat against Republican David Young. No woman has ever been elected to Congress or governor in Iowa.
Clinton has said she expects to decide on another campaign early next year.
The Clintons were attending a private reception for Harkin at Principal Park, the home of Des Moines’ minor league baseball team, before traveling to the hot-air balloon field where the senator has held the fundraiser since the early 1990s.
The Clintons count Harkin and his wife, Ruth, as longtime friends. Harkin was a vocal supporter of Bill Clinton during the impeachment crisis and Hillary Clinton served alongside Harkin for nearly a decade. Bill Clinton faced Harkin in the 1992 presidential primaries but never competed in Iowa. The candidates bypassed the state because of the Iowa senator’s role.
Ready for Hillary, a super PAC laying the groundwork for a Clinton campaign, plans to be visible at the steak fry, handing out T-shirts and signing up volunteers.