Sunday afternoon in Indianola, Iowa, is bound to be a spectacle. Former President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary will be the keynote speakers at retiring Sen. Tom Harkin’s 37th and last steak fry. Some 5,000 people—a third of the town’s population of 15,000—are expected to attend, including more than 200 journalists from around the world.
The former first lady’s every handshake and utterance will surely be parsed for signs of whether she’ll run for President again in 2016. This will be Clinton’s first trip back to Iowa since her humiliating third-place loss in the caucuses in 2008, a setback that ultimately cost her the nomination. Just in case she’s forgotten this painful fact, the Republican National Committee made a highlight reel of Clinton’s past failures in Iowa to remind her.
The event will surely look like a campaign. Ready for Hillary, her shadow grassroots campaign will be on hand to greet the former New York senator and Secretary of State. They have been encouraging Iowans to register for the event for months, and they’ll have the “Ready for Hillary” bus there.
As she was when she last attended this event seven years ago, Clinton is heavily favored to win the caucuses. If the caucuses were held today she’d garner 53% of the vote, according to a CNN/ORC poll of registered Iowa voters out Friday. That blows away the field: Vice President Joe Biden comes in a distant second with 15%, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has said repeatedly she won’t run, gets 7%, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has 5%, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo 3%, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley 2% and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick 1%.
And one of the biggest differences between 2007 and now is that at that Steak Fry, which is an annual fundraiser, then Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards were eagerly anticipated guests in attendance. Ultimately, Obama would win the caucuses and Edwards would come in second. This time, there’s no rival in sight. Well, Sanders may show up (he’s holding an event in Des Moines that night), but few believe he’s a threat to Clinton the way Obama and Edwards were.
That said, many Iowans view Clinton’s candidacy with a grain of salt, and some will come to the Steak Fry to see how she behaves. She ran a decidedly non-retail campaign in 2008, visiting less than 60 of the 99 counties. Bill Clinton didn’t contest Iowa in 1992 as his host, Harkin, was on the ballot and an easy shoo-in. And he didn’t bother much with it during his reelection. Which means that Iowans feel like they don’t truly know the Clintons they way they know other politicians who’ve come to pay homage to the fickle first voters. And they’ll expect—or at least hope for—some signs of courtship from the Clintons.
Officially, Clinton isn’t running for President. She said last week that she’d make up her mind after Jan. 1 if she’ll enter the race. But that won’t stop speculation from running rampant. Let the pseudo-shadow-non-campaigning begin.
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