Hillary Rodham Clinton parachuted into Iowa on Sunday, marking her first visit to the state that crippled her 2008 presidential campaign — sparking a feeding frenzy of speculation about what’s next for the former first lady.
Mrs. Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, headlined retiring Sen. Tom Harkin’s 37th annual steak fry in a grassy field in Indianola, where they were tracked by a media mob and celebrated the Iowa lawmaker’s 40-year political career.
Along the way, Mrs. Clinton shook hands and posed for pictures with supporters, signed autographs and flipped steaks, all while ignoring questions about the 2016 campaign.
Instead, the 66-year-old former senator and secretary of state teased the crowd about her plans, telling them that her focus is on her future grandchild and “then, of course, there is that other thing.”
“Well, it is true. I am thinking about it, but for today that is not why I am here,” Mrs. Clinton said, sparking disappointed “aahs” from those in attendance. “I am here for the steak.”
Mrs. Clinton praised Mr. Harkin’s record of service and called on the 5,000 activists that turned out for the event — some sporting “Ready for Hillary” T-shirts and touting “Hillary for President” signs — to honor Mr. Harkin’s legacy by working as hard as they can for Democrats in the November election, including his protege, U.S. Rep. Bruce L. Braley, who is running for Mr. Harkin’s seat against state Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican.
“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 — and our opponents are not,” she said.
The race in Iowa is among about a dozen across the nation that could decide whether Democrats continue to call the shots in the Senate during the final two years of the Obama administration. Republicans need to pick up a net of six seats to flip control of the upper chamber.
“Do everything you can now to make sure [that] when you wake up the morning after the election, you breathe a big sigh of relief, because you will have done everything you could to make sure that Tom Harkin’s legacy of service, of fighting, of standing up and making it clear whose side he is on will continue,” Mrs. Clinton said.
A CNN/ORC poll released Friday showed that Mr. Braley has a slight 49 percent to 48 percent lead over Mrs. Ernst among likely voters.
The survey also found that 53 percent of registered Democrats said that they would support Mrs. Clinton in the Iowa caucuses, which traditionally kick off the nomination race.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who is scheduled to travel to Iowa on Wednesday to headline a liberal Catholic event in Des Moines, received 15 percent, compared to 7 percent for Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and 5 percent for Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, who also was in Iowa over the weekend and is openly considering a bid.
“Iowa and America do not want to anoint anybody,” Mr. Sanders said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “What the American people clearly want to see is a major debate about the important issues facing American families and the middle class of this country and not [saying], ‘Oh, here is your crown; take the nomination.’”
Earlier this month, Mrs. Clinton said she will decide “probably after the first of the year about whether I’m going to run again or not,”
Political observers, though, said Mrs. Clinton is likely running.
“If the fact that Hillary Clinton is at Tom Harkin’s Iowa steak fry doesn’t scream ‘2016’ in surround sound, I don’t know what does,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist. “Let’s face the facts: No one goes to Iowa in September of 2014 without a future presidential run in mind, including Hillary, and this is her coming-out party.”
“The GOP should be shaking in their boots — regardless of the gains the party makes in 2014,” Mr. O’Connell said. “Were it not for Hillary in 2016, the Democrats would be locked out of the White House for the next 8 years no matter who the eventual GOP presidential nominee is.”
Before the steak fry, the Clintons attended a private reception for Mr. Harkin’s To Organize a Majority PAC at Principal Park, the home of Des Moines’ minor league baseball team.
Asked on CNN’s “State of the Union” whether he would support Mrs. Clinton for president, Mr. Harkin was noncommittal, saying they are “very close friends” and that she has inspired women across the globe.
Mr. Harkin said that Mr. Biden, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia and Mr. Sanders could also run for the Democratic nomination.
“Let’s be honest about this,” Mr. Harkin said. “If Hillary decides to run, I think it is going to be very tough for anybody else.”
Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, who served as secretary of the Navy under President Reagan, also has signaled some interest in the job. Despite her strong poll showings and popularity among progressives suspicious of Mrs. Clinton, Mrs. Warren has repeatedly said she will not run, even to the point of publicly disassociating herself from a PAC seeking to raise money for her campaign.
In 2008 Mrs. Clinton placed a disappointing third behind then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the party’s 2004 vice presidential nominee.
In her memoir “Hard Choices,” Mrs. Clinton described the Iowa result as “excruciating.”
At the steak fry Sunday, Mr. Harkin suggested Mrs. Clinton could rebound from the experience, calling the Clintons the “comeback couple.”
“Here is what I say to all my friends in Iowa: Get her book ‘Hard Choices,’” Mr. Harkin said. “There are 25 chapters in that book. I am here to tell you that there are many more chapters to be written in the amazing life of Hillary Clinton.”