Hillary Clinton fueled 2016 speculation when she took the stage at Sen. Tom Harkin's final steak fry, which has become an iconic Democratic fundraiser. The appearance marked Clinton's first visit to the key state of Iowa since the 2008 presidential caucuses. (Julie Percha/The Washington Post)

Hillary Rodham Clinton jumped back into the partisan fray here Sunday, framing the November midterm elections as “a choice between the guardians of gridlock and the champions of shared opportunity” and warning Democrats of the consequences of complacency.

On a day when many activists were sizing her up as a potential 2016 presidential candidate , Clinton sprinkled her speech with playful teases about what may be coming. She began her remarks with “I’m baaaaaack!” and ended them by saying, “Let’s not let another seven years go by.”

Clinton’s visit to retiring Sen. Tom Harkin’s 37th and final steak fry was her first trip to Iowa since her demoralizing loss in the 2008 presidential caucuses and one of her few partisan appearances since joining the Obama administration as secretary of state. She acknowledged that she is thinking about another run but urged her audience to focus squarely on the November midterms, when control of the Senate is up for grabs and could be decided in Iowa.

“In 50 days, every Iowa voter needs to know that from the president on down to local officials, we Democrats are for raising the minimum wage, for equal pay for equal work, for making college and technical training affordable, for growing the economy to benefit everyone,” Clinton said. “And our opponents are not.”

In a nod to the state’s role hosting the first presidential caucuses, Clinton added: “Too many people only get excited about presidential campaigns. Look, I get excited about presidential campaigns, too. But . . . use the enthusiasm that Iowa is so well known for every presidential year and channel that into these upcoming elections. Don’t wake up the day after the election and feel bad and wonder what more you could have done.”

Retiring Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) held his 37th -- and final -- Harkin Steak Fry, an event that's become iconic in Democratic politics. He sat down with The Washington Post's Dan Balz and Philip Rucker to share his favorite Steak Fry memories through the years. (Julie Percha/The Washington Post)

Clinton and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, drew an estimated 10,000 Democrats and some 200 members of the press corps on a crisp, clear-skied Sunday to a sloping, grassy balloon field outside Indianola. As the couple spoke from a stage adorned with bales of hay, pumpkins and a giant American flag, the atmosphere was both festive and serious.

The Clintons paid tribute to Harkin, an unabashed prairie populist who through 40 years in elective office has become a legendary Democratic figure in the state. And the senator cast the Clintons as progressive standard-bearers, dubbing them “the comeback couple in America,” a reference to Bill Clinton calling himself “the comeback kid” in the 1992 campaign.

Harkin also credited Hillary Clinton with the fight for universal health care, saying that even though she was secretary of state during the passage of the Affordable Care Act, “her fingerprints are all over that legislation.”

Hillary Clinton has been under pressure to address growing concerns in her party about income inequality, not only because of her ties to Wall Street and the business community but also because of the centrist economic policies of her husband’s administration. She did so here on Sunday.

“Today, you know so well, American families are working harder than ever, but maintaining a middle-class life feels like pushing a boulder uphill every single day,” Clinton said. “That is not how it’s supposed to be in America.”

Clinton talked about her late mother, Dorothy Rodham, who was abandoned and mistreated by her parents but “channeled her own struggles into a deep conviction that there is worth and dignity in every human being.”

Both Clintons urged Iowa Democrats to do all they could to elect Rep. Bruce Braley (D), who is locked in a tight race to replace Harkin, and referenced his opponent, state Sen. Joni Ernst (R), though not by name. Hillary Clinton mentioned Ernst’s opposition to a federal minimum wage and noted that women hold a majority of minimum-wage jobs, including those that rely mostly on tips, such as waiters, bartenders and hairstylists.

Hillary Clinton was followed on stage by her husband, who delivered a more conversational speech that mixed partisan criticism of the Republicans with a lengthy call for Democrats and Republicans to find more ways to work together.

“We have got to pull this country together to push this country forward,” he said.

The former president noted that too many politicians go to work with blinders over their eyes and their ears plugged up. “Think about America: We are less racist, sexist and homophobic than we’ve ever been,” he said. “But we do have one continuing problem. We don’t want to be around anyone who disagrees with us.”

For Hillary Clinton, Sunday’s steak-fry appearance was a chance to rebuild her ties to Iowa, where she finished a surprising third in the 2008 caucuses — behind Barack Obama and John Edwards. She left here feeling scorned, and her husband voiced criticism of the state’s unique caucus system. To many Democratic activists, her campaign came across as aloof and presumptuous.

On Sunday, Clinton tried to make a more personal connection in Iowa. She was chummy with Harkin and some supporters as she cheerfully flipped steaks at a hot grill. Later, in her speech, she said she is eagerly awaiting her first grandchild — “I’m calling Chelsea every five minutes,” she quipped.

In his introduction, Harkin said: “Over these years, both Bill and Hillary have become a part of our Iowa Democratic family. They’ve been in our homes, they’ve broken bread with us, they’ve become our friends and our inspiration.”

Hillary Clinton’s speech resonated with the Democrats who packed the balloon field, including some who backed Obama over her in 2008.

“I think she’s ready,” said Marilyn Reese, an Obama supporter from Des Moines. “I’m ready for her. She has the intelligence and already the moxie to make some headway.”

Glenn Camp, a retired middle school principal who lives in Indianola, called her speech “outstanding.”

“The only thing she could have done better was to announce that she was going to run, but I think she indicated that she is going to run,” Camp said.

Harkin’s steak fry was an excuse for a weekend of political activity and networking in anticipation of the 2016 campaign. The event drew people from around the country, including many strategists and operatives in the Clinton orbit who form the backbone of the outside groups already set up to aid her if she runs.

The steak fry began modestly back when Harkin was a young member of Congress. Tickets cost $2, and the first such event included a few dozen friends and supporters of Harkin grilling their own steaks and sitting on bales of hay, talking politics.

In the intervening years, the steak fry became one of the signal political events on the fall calendar for Democrats. Bill Clinton was making his fourth appearance as a featured speaker, the most of anyone who has appeared on the stage.

Harkin was emotional in his remarks Sunday night — he thanked longtime staffers, even calling one up on stage for a hug — but also resolute about the political battles ahead. He called on his supporters to give Republicans “a good whipping” in November.

“Since I got into politics, I always believed that an obligation of our government is to make sure we leave the ladder down for others to climb, too,” Harkin said. “I may be retiring from the Senate, but I’m not retiring from the fight.”