Clinton seeks Iowa redemption

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Hillary Clinton is seeking redemption in the state that threw her 2008 presidential bid into turmoil. 

Clinton will be the star guest at retiring Sen. Tom Harkin’s (D) final steak fry in Iowa, on Sept. 14. It’s an early trip for the former senator and secretary of State, who will be accompanied by former President Clinton. 

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Harkin’s annual event is a must-visit for Iowa Democrats.

It’s also a chance for presidential hopefuls to introduce themselves, up close and personal, to the people who will cast the first votes in the 2016 contest.

For Clinton, it’s indicative of her seriousness about 2016, and a signal that she believes the Hawkeye State does, indeed, matter.

The trip “is a pretty clear sign to Iowa Democrats, and I think to the political community in the country, that she’s running,” said David Yepsen, who covered many presidential elections during a 34-year career with the Des Moines Register. He is now the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.

Clinton came in third in Iowa in January 2008 to not only then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama but to Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) as well. 

The result was a rebuff for Clinton that squashed the sense she was the inevitable Democratic nominee and shifted momentum to Obama.

The loss came after Clinton’s team flirted with abandoning the Hawkeye State. In an internal May 2007 memo that embarrassed Clinton’s campaign when it became public, her deputy campaign manager, Mike Henry, advocated pulling the plug on Iowa. 

“We will not have a financial advantage or an organizational advantage over any of our opponents,” Henry wrote. “Worst case scenario: this effort may bankrupt the campaign and provide little if any political advantage.”

But now, ahead of 2016, Clinton seems intent on appealing to Iowa voters, not alienating them. It's her first campaign visit this year, and a sign she won't abandon the state again. 

“I think she learned her lesson last time that you can’t ignore Iowa,” said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University professor of history and public affairs. “You have to romance it and make it the centerpiece of a presidential run.”

“For people in the heartland, travel by national figures to local events is a sign of respect,” said Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf, who worked on then-President Clinton’s 1996 reelection bid.

Iowa has long been problematic territory for Team Clinton.

Bill Clinton did not compete seriously in the state's caucuses in either of his presidential runs. In 1992, the inclusion of Harkin as a candidate made the result a foregone conclusion and, in 1996, Clinton was running unopposed as an incumbent president.

The Clintons' Iowa failures are in stark contrast to their New Hampshire successes. In 1992, a scandal-marred Bill Clinton declared himself “the Comeback Kid.” His deep roots there helped propel his wife to victory in 2008, only days after Obama’s Iowa triumph. 

But Team Clinton hopes things could be different in 2016. Early Hawkeye state polls give the front-runner a huge lead over her possible rivals. 

Last month, for example, an NBC News/Marist poll gave Clinton the support of 70 percent of Iowa Democrats. Vice President Biden trailed 50 points behind the former first lady.

Still, Democratic strategists say that Clinton is being prudent in going to the state so far in advance of the 2016 caucuses. In doing so, she could prevent a challenger from the left of the party — such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), if she decided to enter the race — from gaining a foothold.

“In 2008, I think there was a sense that she had not got to Iowa early enough and that had allowed people like Obama to get traction,” said Chris Lehane, who worked in the Clinton White House and as press secretary on Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign. 

This time around, Lehane noted, Clinton could “really reduce the amount of oxygen available to others.” 

Clinton, of course, is not yet a candidate — officially, at least. She and her husband are ostensibly visiting Iowa to pay homage to Harkin. They'll also boost Democratic candidates such as Rep. Bruce Braley, who is locked in an unexpectedly tight race with Republican Joni Ernst for a Senate seat critical to the party's hopes of keeping the upper chamber. 

Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill insisted in a statement last week that the former secretary of State was “looking forward to campaigning for her Democratic friends and colleagues” and that this effort happened to include “a stop to see her old friend and colleague Senator Harkin, to help raise money for important races in Iowa.”

When The Hill asked the super-PAC Ready for Hillary whether it would organize any activities around the Clintons’ visit, a spokesman replied: “Ready for Hillary looks forward to playing a major role in helping make the final Harkin steak fry a success and honoring Tom Harkin's legacy. Our efforts at the steak fry will be a continuation of the work that our supporters have been doing for months and months to elect Iowa Democrats up and down the ticket in 2014.”

Some say Hillary Clinton is indeed going to Iowa to help a Democratic candidate — the one who looks back at her in the mirror.

The proclamations of support for other candidates are, Yepsen noted, “a nicety that makes no difference. She knows the signal [her visit] sends.”