'I'm Baa-aack!': Clintons Give Hillary's 2016 Efforts an Unofficial Start in Iowa

PHOTO: Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks during U.S. Sen. Tom Harkins annual fundraising Steak Fry, Sept. 14, 2014, in Indianola, Iowa.PlayCharlie Neibergall/AP Photo
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If and when Hillary Clinton runs for president again, history will record that her campaign began in all but name with a swarm of young and "ready" activists, stage-managed banter about grilled hunks of Iowa meat, and a concession that she's "thinking about" what she referred to only as "that other thing."

"Hello Iowa -- I'm baa-aack!" Clinton told a crowd of more than 6,000 gathered to honor the retiring Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, on a field outside Des Moines that's used for ballooning competitions.

"I've got a few things on my mind these days," Clinton added, drawing rising applause from the group of Democratic activists. "First and most importantly, Bill and I are on constant grandchild watch."

She said she just might have to sprint off the stage if Chelsea goes into labor, and added: "Then of course -- there's that other thing. 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."

Progressives Have Questions About Clinton's 'Vision for America'

Framed by a giant American flag, a few tractors, and bales of Iowa hay, Clinton's speech doubled as a tribute to a retiring liberal stalwart and an initial reintroduction to Iowa's party faithful.

Her calls for populist Democratic policies and elected Democrats who can help in "moving America forward" received polite, though only occasionally enthusiastic, applause.

Harkin, the event's host, offered to build on the "Comeback Kid" nickname Bill Clinton famously earned in 1992, after he exceeded expectations in the New Hampshire primary.

"President Clinton and Hillary Clinton are now the 'Comeback Couple,'" Harkin said.

There was nothing approaching an announcement of candidacy, of course, and no hints about a timeline. Both Clintons parried questions about whether their appearance at an Iowa institution like the Steak Fry means the former secretary of state is running for president again.

"It's great to be back in Iowa," Hillary Clinton told reporters who swarmed near her after her designated time behind the steak grill.

Peppered with questions about 2016, she rolled her eyes for dramatic effect.

"This is about the people running right now -- 2014," she said.

But the former president couldn't help but effuse when asked about the "Ready for Hillary" volunteers who crisscrossed the Steak Fry grounds, about 20 miles outside Des Moines.

"Just like Energizer Bunnies. They're everywhere," Clinton said.

Pressed by ABC News on whether his wife would disappoint those supporters by not running, the former president spoke loudly with his no-comment.

"I will not be baited. I cannot be baited," he said. "I'm waiting to be a grandfather, and I want a happy grandmother."

Clinton's appearance drew more than 6,000 Democratic activists -- and more than 200 journalists -- for the 37th and final Harkin Steak Fry, held on the grounds of the annual National Hot Air Balloon Championships.

As Clinton's first visit of the year to an early-voting state, the event offered a glimpse of what a potential second Hillary Clinton presidential campaign would look like, with all its strengths and weaknesses.

Conversations with a range of attendees revealed more acceptance than eagerness about another Clinton campaign.

Virtually all said they'd likely support Clinton. But several attendees offered up other potential Democrats -- notably Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts -- as people they'd like to see run as well.

Clinton was the only potential 2016er to attend the Steak Fry, which has historically been a proving ground for Democrats in advance of the Iowa caucuses. Yet the Clintons spent little time mingling with possible caucus-goers; they arrived via motorcade at the back of the sprawling field, and even their few moments of grilling time was fenced off from the press and attendees.

Clinton's challenges in Iowa are a microcosm of the broader obstacles she could face in a second presidential candidacy. She needs to turn around memories of a dysfunctional and ultimately doomed effort to connect one-on-one with voters in the state that kicks off the presidential process.

In 2008, Clinton finished an embarrassing third in the Iowa caucuses, behind Barack Obama and John Edwards -- a result she called "excruciating" in her book. Now, should she run, Clinton needs to find a way to look forward, when at least part of her appeal is based on looking back.

The Democratic Party, too, is in a different place than it was in the pre-Obama era. Harkin, the day's host, spoke of the broader angst inside the party on the eve of the event. He told ABC News that he and fellow liberals are "always nervous about people moving too far to the right."

"So where is Hillary on that?" Harkin was asked in an interview that aired on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos."

"Well I don't know," Harkin said. "I mean, I think this is something that will be developed and we'll find out when, if she, if she decides to run. You know, what's her vision for America?"

Cathy Jaschke, a 66-year-old Medicare specialist from Ankeny who attended the Steak Fry, said she's concerned that the sense of inevitability surrounding Clinton's candidacy could once again hurt her in Iowa.

"People think it's a given, and that could be a problem," said Jaschke, who said she supported Bill Richardson and then John Edwards in the 2008 caucuses. "It's expected. It's not something you can get on and get excited over."

But the event in Indianola also showed off the considerable advantages her candidacy would enjoy. The Clintons themselves traveled with few staffers and no formal campaign apparatus, but they didn't need an entourage: The quasi-grassroots organization Ready for Hillary took care of the organizing necessary to make her appearance look like a major political event.

Ready for Hillary bused in supporters from six colleges and universities, an implicit response to those who remember her failure to attract the fervor of young voters nearly seven years ago.

The group's bus -- bought and wrapped with pro-Hillary slogans in Iowa -- was parked at the Steak Fry entrance. More than 300 volunteers milled the grounds, slapping bumper stickers on cars whose drivers welcomed the additions, and adding names to the group's growing database.

The baby-blue signs that lined the event site read simply, "Ready," as if the "for Hillary" part is no longer necessary to convey the mission. Organizers said that's intended as a message that Democrats are as interested in 2014 as they are 2016 -- and to remind Clinton herself that she has a campaign army in waiting.

"The message to her, that she's been getting wherever she travels, is, 'We're ready for you,'" said Adam Parkhomenko, Ready for Hillary's executive director and a cofounder of the group. "If you decide to run, there's going to be thousands of people who have your back."

A few other potential candidates, notably Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, have showered money on Iowa candidates this year.

Vice President Joe Biden will be in Iowa Wednesday, and liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who is mulling a run for president as a Democrat, made a weekend stop in the state that included events both before and after the Clintons were in Iowa today.

But there's no Obama-like figure anywhere on the Democratic horizon these days, leaving Hillary Clinton as the far-and-away frontrunner.

Harkin called it a "joy and honor" to welcome two people who "have become a part of our Iowa Democratic family," and he closed his final speech at the event with the warmest of tributes to his former colleague.

"There are many more chapters to be written in the amazing life of Hillary Clinton," Harkin said.