Harkin's steak fry swan song

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DES MOINES, Iowa — Sen. Tom HarkinTom HarkinGrassley challenger no stranger to defying odds Clinton ally stands between Sanders and chairmanship dream Do candidates care about our health or just how much it costs? MORE (D-Iowa) might be retiring, but he's not ready to give up the fight to preserve his legacy and keep his seat in Democratic hands.

Harkin is hosting his 37th and final Steak Fry on Sunday morning with headliners Hillary and Bill ClintonBill ClintonOvernight Healthcare: Trump calls ObamaCare stats 'a lie' | Clinton vows to 'tackle' hikes Dems come to ObamaCare's defense after premium hikes The lazy political writing of 'SNL' MORE, launching the 2016 frenzy in the caucus state. 

But Harkin has a more immediate goal: help his protégé Rep. Bruce BraleyBruce BraleyCriminal sentencing bill tests McConnell-Grassley relationship Trump's VP list shrinks Vernon wins Iowa House Dem primary MORE (D-Iowa) defeat state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) in a fight critical to Senate control. 

The five-term senator first convinced Braley to run for office back in 2006, and the two have been close ever since. When Braley stepped up to run for Harkin's seat, the senator dispatched many of his top operatives to help the congressman win his battle. 

Those strategists expect Harkin, in his high-profile swan song event, to rally the Democratic troops to fight hard for Braley and other Democrats between now and Election Day. Organizers are expecting at least 5,000 activists to gather in the cornfields outside Indianola, Iowa, on Sunday, making it one of the biggest gatherings in Steak Fry history.

"I talked to Tom about his remarks a little bit yesterday. He is going to give some of the classic rhetoric he's given before — people come to hear Tom fire up the troops," Jeff Link, a longtime Harkin adviser and a senior strategist on Braley's campaign, told The Hill Saturday morning.

"His first goal tomorrow is reminding people why this is important and need to work hard the next seven weeks. He has a few choice lines about Braley and a few more choice lines about Joni Ernst,” Link continued. 

Harkin will be with a few thousand of his closest friends on Sunday, but he had a small gathering of current and former campaign and Hill staff at the Iowa Cubs's stadium Saturday. Old staffers from across the country flew in for the event, including some big names like former White House Communications Director Ellen Moran. The event was closed to the press — and everyone else, including spouses.

Iowans say, while the Clintons will draw the most national attention on Sunday, state Democrats are focused on helping get Braley across the finish line and honoring Harkin and his legacy.

“It's hard to overstate the personal emotional attachment Tom Harkin has with Iowa Democrats. His politics, his strategies have always been absolutely grassroots, personal and retail … His record of achievement is remarkable, on disabilities, on breast cancer research, funding for NIH, healthcare; his work has touched the lives of everyone who lives in the state and country,” said former Iowa Democratic Party Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky. 

“He's ours. It's a very bittersweet thing,” she continued. “The emotion there will be so high.”

Braley and Harkin are close — they both grew up in rural Iowa towns before paying their own way through Iowa State University. Braley, a former trial lawyer, was a major Harkin donor for years. He first decided to weigh a run for office when, during a trip to D.C. to show his mother the World War II Memorial, he met with Harkin to chat. 

But Democrats privately admit that Braley, despite his modest roots, lacks the blue-collar charm Harkin has relied on to help him win for more than four decades. 

Braley's comments earlier this year that Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyFreeing the False Claims Act Key GOP chairman calls for 'robust review' of AT&T-Time Warner deal Report: Investor visa program mainly funds wealthy areas MORE (R-Iowa) was just “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school” and that he’d make a better Judiciary Committee member because of his legal background upended the race. 

Republicans have hammered him for reports that he threatened to sue his neighbor because she didn’t keep her chickens from wandering into his yard. He also took some heat last fall for remarks, while defending keeping the House gym open during the government shutdown, saying, “There’s no towel service; we're doing our own laundry down there.”

Democrats have gone all-in on the race since Ernst — herself a farmer and combat veteran — dominated her June primary, drawing support from the usually divergent establishment and Tea Party wings of the GOP. 

Democratic groups have outspent Republicans on ads by roughly $2 million over the summer, attacking Ernst on her views on Medicare, Social Security, the minimum wage, the renewable fuel standard and other topics. Those have helped move the polls back from an Ernst advantage to a neck-and-neck contest, giving Democrats new reason for optimism. 

Activists in both parties recognize how momentous Harkin’s retirement is — and the risk, and opportunity, of the first open-seat Senate race since 1984. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has served even longer than Harkin, first winning his Senate seat in 1980.

“Sen. Grassley, who is just a farmer, a very brilliant one, he has told me, 'There's nothing I won't do to get you elected.' He said, 'I've had my vote canceled out for 30 years now.' He needs a partner in the United States Senate, and I am going to be that partner for Sen. Chuck Grassley,” Ernst said at an event hosted by the Iowa Farm Bureau on Friday; the group recently endorsed her.

“There hasn't been an open seat for the U.S. Senate in 30 years,” said Iowa Farm Bureau President Craig Hill, as he introduced Ernst at the Friday event. “This may be a once-in-a-lifetime event, and it has so much impact on our lives.” 

Democrats agree on at least that much. 

“The stakes are really high for Democrats in November. We've got to hang on to Tom Harkin's seat, and Tom knows that. He’s going to be doing everything he can, and that'll certainly be a part of the Steak Fry agenda,” former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge (D) told The Hill.

And Harkin, onstage for the final time at event he helped make iconic, will be pushing Democrats to keep up the fight.