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INDIANOLA, Iowa — Hillary Clinton fanned the 2016 flames on Sunday, making her first return to the early caucus state since her 2008 presidential primary loss.

{mosads}As the former secretary of State took the stage at retiring Sen. Tom Harkin’s (D-Iowa) final steak fry, she told the crowd: “Hello Iowa — I’m ba-ack!”

Even though she and her husband were there to pay homage to the retiring Democrat and stump for the party’s candidates in the competitive state, Clinton cheekily acknowledged that another White House bid wasn’t far from her mind.

“And then, of course, there’s that other thing,” she told a crowd that had chanted “Ready, ready,” as she took the stage.

“Well, it is true I am thinking about it. But for today, that is not why I’m here. I’m here for the steak,” Clinton laughed.

Clinton spent much of her 23-minute speech heaping praise on Harkin, who is retiring after 40 years in Congress, and calling for the assembled activists to push hard in this midterm election, saying when Democrats “show up, we win.”

Harkin was just as kind to Clinton in his speech, saying, while she came to the Senate as a “rock star,” she quickly became a “rock of Gibraltar” for the families hurt in the Sept. 11th, 2001 attacks.

He also said ObamaCare wouldn’t have come into being without her long advocacy for reform.

“Her fingerprints are all over that legislation,” he said.

Harkin also hinted that Clinton wasn’t done.

“There are many more chapters to be written in the life of Hillary Clinton,” he said to a roar from the crowd.

The race to succeed Harkin has become one of closest in the country, with Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa,) in a tighter-than-expected contest with state Sen. Joni Ernst (R). Clinton emphasized the importance of the election, which could determine whether Democrats hold onto the upper chamber, and stressed the state’s other congressional and gubernatorial races.

Although 2014 is the most immediate election, it was clear from the boisterous crowd that 2016 was on their minds. Some lines from the hot air balloon grounds outside Des Moines sounded like trial balloons for a campaign stump speech.

“It’s time to write a new chapter in the American Dream,” she said after warning that “maintaining a middle-class life feels like pushing a boulder up a hill every single day” for too many.

“It’s time to heed the push of our values and the pull of our future,” she later said.

Clinton made it clear she will return to Iowa sooner rather than later.

“It’s really great to be back. Let’s not let another seven years go by,” she closed to big whoops from the crowd.

The fairgrounds were packed with “Ready for Hillary” supporters waving “Ready” signs and handing out bumper stickers. The much younger activists’ bright blue and green shirts stood out in the crowd of mostly older lifelong activists there to pay tribute to Harkin. They, like the Clintons, were careful not to overshadow the hosts, waving “Thank you, Tom” signs, but the cheers for the Clintons were louder than for anyone else.

Clinton also worked the rope line after her speech, with supporters asking to take selfies with the possible candidate, for her autograph or for her to sign her book. They also wished the soon-to-be grandmother well.

She and husband Bill Clinton both made a point of taking their time both with voters and reporters, after she was criticized by some for a lack of glad-handing in the state in 2008.

After helping with the traditional grilling of the steaks (none are fried, after all), the Clintons came out with Harkin to greet the crush of dozens of reporters pressed against a nearby fence.

The former president refused to be pulled away by a handler who kept telling him that his veggie burgers were ready, sticking around to talk to reporters and sing Harkins’s praises for a full 10 minutes after his wife had departed.

In his remarks, Bill Clinton railed against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Sunday and framed the midterm elections as more broadly about defining “the terms in which we will relate to each other and relate to the rest of the world.”

He said. while much had improved in America, one problem still prevailed: “We don’t want to be around anyone that disagrees with us.”

Longtime attendees said the crowd of roughly 10,000 people was one of the larger ones in the event’s history, though far less than when both Hillary Clinton and then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) participated in 2007.

But press interest was though the roof. Organizers ran out of press badges and had to resort to writing “press” in green ink on index cards for many of the 200 gathered members of the media.

— Updated at 7:32 p.m.

Tags Hillary Clinton Iowa Tom Harkin
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