Hillary Clinton to Iowa: 'I’m back'

Former Sen. Hillary Clinton signs autographs during the Harkin Steak Fry in Indianola Ipwa on September 14, 2014. (Zach Boyden-Holmes/McClatchy)
Former Sen. Hillary Clinton signs autographs during the Harkin Steak Fry in Indianola Ipwa on September 14, 2014. (Zach Boyden-Holmes/McClatchy) McClatchy

Hillary Clinton all but kicked off her 2016 White House bid Sunday before a festive crowd of 6,000 in this pivotal state, presenting herself as a child and champion of the still-struggling middle class.

Already dogged by an image as an out-of-touch, wealthy insider, her appearance at a field 20 miles outside Des Moines was an effort to reposition her for the coming campaign.

It’s too soon to say if voters will buy a more empathetic Clinton, making her first visit to Iowa in nearly seven years. While Democratic activists cheered, the response was not overwhelming, and many signaled they were not ready to commit to the former secretary of state or anyone else this soon.

The Iowa presidential caucuses, traditionally the nation’s first, are at least 16 months away. Activists still have vivid memories of how Clinton faltered last time — she finished third in the 2008 caucus behind Barack Obama and John Edwards —and wanted to wait to see if she could be more down-to-earth and feisty this time.

“Well hello, Iowa, I’m back,” Clinton smiled and declared as she looked out over the people camped out on the lawn at the annual, and final, Steak Fry event hosted by retiring Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa..

She wouldn’t commit to another White House run, but wouldn’t rule it out either.

“It is true I am thinking about it,” Clinton said. “But that’s not why I’m here today.” A few in the crowd said, “aww.”

“I’m here for the steaks,” Clinton explained. “For four years as secretary of state I was more likely to be eating yak meat in Mongolia, having a great time doing it, but thinking a lot about being back home.”

Make no mistake, if Clinton runs a strong campaign, people overwhelmingly said they’d rally behind her.

“I like her experience, and she knows what she’s doing,” said Dawn Dick, a Des Moines manager for a metal distributor. “But I’m still up in the air about what to do.”

Ann Swenson, a Waukee music teacher, liked Clinton, too. She also liked Vice President Joe Biden. “I just want a Democrat in office.”

Clinton’s visit was tightly scripted, and often physically distant, from the crowd at this afternoon-long schmoozefest that since the 1970s has been one of the state’s premier showcases for Democratic White House hopefuls.

She and former President Bill Clinton arrived in a motorcade that headed for a gas grill on a patch of land 300 feet from the crowd. They cooked steaks and bantered with Harkin and a few guests for seven minutes as 200 media representatives watched. Clinton said matter-of-factly she was “just here to support candidates.” The crowd was unable to get a glimpse of the couple.

The Clintons then rode the motorcade to the nearby podium. Harkin greeted them warmly, joking they were the “comeback couple,” a reference to Bill Clinton’s 1992 nomination fight and, by implication, his wife’s next campaign. “There are many more chapters to be written in the amazing life of Hillary Clinton,” Harkin said.

She started writing the latest Sunday. Clinton recalled her middle class upbringing in a Chicago suburb, and compared sustaining a middle class life to “pushing a boulder uphill every day.”

“No matter who you are or where you come from if you work hard and you play by the rules you deserve the same opportunity as anyone else to build a good life for yourself and your family,” Clinton said.

She presented herself as a mother particularly sensitive to women’s issues. “I’ve got a few things on my mind these days. First, and most importantly, Bill and I are on constant grandchild watch,” she said. “I’m calling (daughter) Chelsea every five minutes to make sure things are going all right.”

Be assured, she said, “when the big moment comes you can bet I will drop everything.” So “if you see me sprinting off the stage, that’s why.”

Most of her 24-minute talk Sunday focused on electing Democrats, and Bill Clinton got rough. Republicans, he said are “trying to get you to check your brain at the door....the last thing they want you to do is think.”

He tore into Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who called passage of a campaign law “the worst day of my political life.”

“I was profoundly sad,” Clinton said. That was hardly the worst thing he’s endured--”What about 9-11?” Clinton asked. “What about the farm crisis in the ‘70s?”

Hillary Clinton still faces risks here. A CNN/ORC poll released Friday showed Clinton the choice of 53 percent of Iowa Democrats. That leaves a big opening for a challenger, though no one has emerged as a principal rival. Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent, appeared at town hall meetings across the state this weekend, but was far down in the poll.

People just want to see and hear more. “She’s getting a little old,” said Gary Desomber, a West Des Moines insurance adjuster. Clinton is 66. “I’m not against Hillary. I just want more time.