DES MOINES — Hillary Rodham Clinton came to Iowa on Sunday amid outsize hype and modest expectations. She met them in the middle.
The former secretary of state made just enough references to a second presidential campaign — all obliquely, of course — to satisfy the 10,000 activists who had come to see her. She said just enough politically to meet the demands of her party, whose leaders and rank-and-file members are worried that, if Democrats produce only their normal midterm-election turnout in November, they will lose control of the Senate.
Clinton was in Iowa with her husband on Sunday ostensibly to pay tribute to retiring Sen. Tom Harkin at his 37th and final steak fry. Bill Clinton has now been to the event four times, and by protocol was the last speaker of the day. But on this day, the former president was window dressing, “the man who accompanied Hillary Clinton back to Iowa,” as Harkin put it.
Bill Clinton’s speech meandered into some strange territory — including references to Woodstock and marijuana, “black bag jobs” by Republican super Pacs and a comment about his pink-checkered shirt, which his wife had given him for his birthday and which he said looked like “a tablecloth at a diner.”
But he did his assigned job. He did not overshadow the prospective candidate — at least not onstage. Earlier, he held court with reporters long after his wife had stepped away from the horde but in those settings he cannot help but entertain. The man loves to talk politics.
Harkin referred to the atmospherics around this year’s steak fry as “the hubbub.” It follows Hillary Clinton wherever she goes. An estimated 200 members of the media were at the balloon field outside Indianola on Sunday, including a contingent from the foreign press. They did not come for the steaks.
Members of the political press corps may be obsessed with a Clinton 2016 presidential campaign. They parse every word, looking for signs of this or that, and interpret every move as meaning something. Along with Democratic insiders, they speculate about every aspect of a possible campaign.
Clinton has fed this media pack plenty of morsels over the past few months, with stumbles on her book tour about her wealth and a testy exchange with National Public Radio’s Terry Gross about her evolution on same-sex marriage. She did recent a backflip after a tart comment in an interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffery Goldberg about President Obama’s foreign policy seeming to lack an organizing principle.
The constant and sometimes microscopic coverage — and cable commentary — drives Clinton’s advisers wild. For months they have attempted to claim that she is simply a private citizen, or merely an author on a book tour, as though she, her husband and those around them aren’t weighing what a 2016 campaign would look like and how it could and should be different from her unsuccessful effort in 2008.
The party activists at the Harkin steak fry seemed more than pleased with what they heard and constrained in any demands for something more. Brent Paulson, a state employee, surveyed the restless press scrum waiting to watch Clinton and Harkin do the obligatory photo op of taking a turn at the grill and holding up steaks for the cameras.
“Unlike the media,” he said, “I don’t care if she announces anything. I can wait.” Minutes after Clinton ended, Glenn Camp, a retired middle-school principal, had heard enough to say, “I think she indicated that she is going to run.”
All the apparatuses are ready. Ready for Hillary, which has morphed from a disorganized draft movement into something resembling a grass-roots campaign-in-waiting, was out in force here over the weekend.
There was a big billboard near the exit of the airport with the now-famous photo of Clinton as secretary of state, in dark glasses reading her BlackBerry, bought and paid for by Ready for Hillary. Rolling “Ready for Hillary” billboards coursed through the downtown on Sunday morning. The organization’s big bus, which has trailed her for months, was at the site of the steak fry.
Young volunteers and only slightly older grizzled campaign veterans were everywhere. Defenders of the Clinton record, who are pouncing on anything that smacks of criticism of her from Republicans or even the media, also were in evidence throughout the weekend. They kept their public focus on November, but 2016 was part of the background music.
On Sunday, Clinton leaned in to all this, with her teasing talk of another run — about how presidential campaigns excite her and how she really is thinking about it and about how she’s not going to let another nearly seven years go by before returning to the state with the first presidential caucuses, the state that caused her such pain the last time. “I’m baaaack!” she exclaimed at the top of her speech.
For Clinton, the calibrations are not always easy. If she waits to speak out on something — such as Syria, threats from Islamic State terrorists or the racial tensions exposed by the killing of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo. — she draws criticism for caution. But if she steps out too much, she exposes herself to another kind of criticism — and to even more attention and views that she is in campaign mode. That has left her in a kind of political limbo.
In her speech Sunday, she checked every box — kind words about Harkin’s career, a sound bite framing the election, references to income inequality, some personal history, a call to juice turnout to overcome the normal midterm falloff among Democrats.
But her remarks were neither exceptional in what she said nor particularly passionate in how she delivered them. They were safe and largely predictable, a kind of Democratic Message 101 heading into the most important stretch of the fall campaign.
What this tells some Democrats is that for all her attributes, and for all the advantages she would carry into the nominating process, she is still getting her sea legs for being a better candidate.
She is remembered in Iowa for the missteps of her national campaign team and by at least some for her inability to connect with people. But she is remembered, too — here and elsewhere — for the times she was an exceptional candidate, one whose intensity drew admiration from Obama and his advisers. Most of that came when it was too late to matter.
The summer and early fall have left open questions. How agile and adroit would she be as a candidate? How fast on her feet is she when thrown an unexpected queries or pressed hard in an interview? Does she have a quick partisan trigger when she should hold back? Can she preach the need for cooperation across the aisle and be a partisan fighter at the same time? Will too much exposure feed a sense of Clinton fatigue? Most important: What really is her vision and message?
The fact that those questions exist is one reason many Democrats, including her supporters, hope she would face competition in the nominating contest. They believe it would sharpen her skills and prepare her for what they expect could be a very competitive general election.
There is more than ample time for Clinton to answer some of these questions but not indefinite time. Sunday’s appearance in Iowa was not going to be the place where she began to reveal the answers. But if she decides to run, there will be great expectations. The party is ready for Hillary. At that point, will Hillary be ready?