By Anne E. Kornblut and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 17, 2007
INDIANOLA, Iowa, Sept. 16 -- Appearing Sunday at a mini-Democratic convention of sorts in a field, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton declared that if she is elected she will not wait until her inauguration to begin acting as president.
Clinton said that, the day after winning election, she would select envoys to "travel around the world with a very simple message: The era of cowboy diplomacy is over."
"America is back," she said.
Six of the Democratic candidates were on hand for the legendary steak fry hosted each year by Sen. Tom Harkin, an event that has become a testing ground for emerging stars and well-known contenders alike. It was here a year ago that Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), then just contemplating a presidential bid, drew large crowds and began seriously thinking about running.
On Sunday, Obama made a robust case for his candidacy, with a focus on health care, one day before Clinton is scheduled to roll out her long-anticipated plan for universal health care in a speech in Des Moines.
"If we don't change our politics, then we are not going to be able to bring about the kind of change that's absolutely necessary," Obama told the crowd of families, party activists and curiosity-seekers.
"You think about it -- we've been debating the idea of universal health care for decades now, through Democratic and Republican administrations," Obama said, a reminder of the failed attempt by Clinton in the 1990s to steer her husband's health-care policy. "We have not made it happen."
Clinton and Obama are in a three-way tie in Iowa with former senator John Edwards (N.C.), and all three are campaigning hard in the state. They view the caucuses here as a launching pad to winning the first primary, in New Hampshire.
Harkin called Iowa "a jump ball" and said that probably more than 60 percent of Iowa Democrats remain undecided about the caucuses. Three other candidates -- Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson -- also appeared at the steak fry, which Harkin said was the largest yet.
"This is my idea of a surge," Harkin said, looking out at the crowd assembled on lawn chairs, holding up signs for the candidates. "Republicans are in disarray. Karl Rove has cut and run. The Bush team is abandoning the sinking ship, but I think the most important story is that sensible, moderate Republicans realize that the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rove-Gonzales party is not a party they can be proud of."
Richardson, in his remarks, gave credit to former vice president Al Gore for being prescient about the environment.
"We all just hope he doesn't get into the race," Richardson said.
Edwards brought the crowd to a hush as he described the moment earlier this year when he and his wife, Elizabeth, learned that her cancer had recurred and faced a decision about whether to drop out of the 2008 campaign.
"The most important things are to have a president who's honest, who's sincere, who has integrity, and who has principle, because it matters not what your political position is if you're not willing to be honest with the American people," Edwards said.
Biden supporters erected a large sign with "ears of experience" on it -- corncobs stacked up to signify which candidate has the most years of government service. Dodd struck a fiery note as he took on Bush over the war. All of the Democrats lambasted the president, a sentiment popular in the crowd, where some of those who attended wore "worst president ever" T-shirts.
In addition to her pre-inauguration promise, Clinton (N.Y.) raised the prospect of some voters being unsure that a woman could become president -- then knocked the concept down. And she borrowed heavily from her husband's record, citing a new book by former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan that praises Bill Clinton. "We are going to bring back fiscal responsibility," she said.
Obama wove a story into his speech about a recent event he attended in which a small woman in the back of the crowd gave him a stirring chant. "Fired up!" Obama quoted the woman as yelling. "Ready to go!" The crowd responded in kind.
Iowans began arriving hours before the speeches began, with traffic slowly snaking along a mostly two-lane road from Indianola to the balloon field three miles east. More than 12,000 people ultimately gathered on the natural amphitheater.
"The steak fry," Harkin told reporters, "has become the kickoff to the fall campaign."
Members of the candidates' staffs saw the steak fry as a test of their organizations, and the leading candidates sought a show of force that would demonstrate their potential strength on caucus night in January. Young organizers were up before dawn to line the highway with signs (Clinton dominated), to secure corners for demonstrations and to continue signing up supporters.
Obama staged a rally before the steak fry, and his supporters, estimated by his staff at about 3,000, then marched through the field that served as a gigantic parking lot and into the site of the event.
As the thousands of Iowa Democrats filled their plates with steaks or chicken, baked beans and potato salad, the candidates joined Harkin at the grills to flip steaks and pose for the horde of cameras there to record the pregame activities.
"I am the champion flipper," Obama boasted as he began poking at the steaks.
Clinton remarked over all the Iowa beef on the grill as she posed for the cameras. Then she noticed the chicken. "Are these Iowa chickens, too?" she asked.
"No," one of the grillers said. "They are Arkansas."