5 things to know about the Harkin Steak Fry

AP News
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Posted: Sep 12, 2014 4:24 AM
5 things to know about the Harkin Steak Fry

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa Democrats gather this weekend for Sen. Tom Harkin's annual Steak Fry fundraiser, headlined this year by former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The event has long been considered a highlight of the political social calendar in the state, but what is it all about? And do they actually fry the steaks?

Five things to know about the Harkin Steak Fry in Indianola:

1. OUT OF THE FRYING PAN

First things first. Nothing actually gets fried.

"In 37 steak fries, they've never fried a steak," said Democratic consultant Jeff Link, a longtime Harkin adviser. But they called it a steak fry at the first, in 1972 near Winterset, Iowa, and the name stuck. It later turned into an annual event.

And there isn't just red meat on the menu. In addition to steak, the thousands of expected attendees can sample chicken, veggie burgers and sides like baked beans.

2. HITTING THE BIGTIME

The Steak Fry has become a high-profile event, in part because of Iowa's role as the leadoff caucus state. In the past two competitive Democratic presidential campaigns, it has served as a valuable opportunity for candidates to practice getting their supporters mobilized — the most important aspect of a winning caucus campaign.

The Steak Fry has also become a place to rally Democrats ahead of a fall election. Some have been key to activating supporters for Harkin, who faced strong challenges in three of his four re-election campaigns. Others have been closely watched for their attendance and enthusiasm ahead of presidential elections, especially since Iowa has become a battleground state.

3. STAR POWER

Who has attended? More like who hasn't.

Bill Clinton will be making his fourth Steak Fry appearance on Sunday. He was the headliner in 1992, weeks before he was elected president, and was back in 1996 with Vice President Al Gore during their re-election bid. He came again in 2003 ahead of the 2004 presidential caucuses, along with the entire slate of Democrats running for president.

In 2006, Sen. Barack Obama's appearance drew a packed crowd, a sign of his rising popularity. A year later, Obama and Hillary Clinton were among six presidential candidates to be the featured guests.

In 2002, Harkin invited Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords, who had switched from a Republican to independent, giving Democrats control of the Senate. Ten years later, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, viewed as potential presidential material, took the stage.

4. NOTABLE MOMENTS

1991: Harkin announces his own bid for president.

2003: Thousands sit through hours of driving, cold rain to hear seven Democratic candidates for president, and wait for a late-arriving Bill Clinton in a muddy event later termed "Harkinstock."

2006: Obama, then beginning to discuss a possible presidential bid, is Harkin's guest. He vastly overshadows outgoing Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who also is weighing a presidential bid.

2007: More than 15,000 attend on a sun-splashed September Sunday to see seven candidates, including Obama, who famously leads thousands of supporters on a march from a nearby field to the Steak Fry.

5. WHAT'S NEXT

Harkin is retiring, and for a lot of Iowa Democrats, the very idea of a world without a Harkin Steak Fry is confusing. And it's not completely clear what will replace the event.

Democratic Senate candidate Bruce Braley, a four-term congressman, has a fall fundraiser called "Bruce, Blues and BBQ." He has held the event for nine years and moved it to Des Moines last year. His campaign spokesman, Jeff Giertz, demurred when asked if that event could replace the Harkin Steak Fry, stressing that the focus was to win this fall's election.

"I don't think anything can replace the Steak Fry," Giertz said.