INDIANOLA, Iowa (AP) — Hillary Rodham Clinton's third-place finish in the 2008 Iowa caucuses seemed but a fading memory when the former secretary of state took the stage in front of roughly 10,000 loyal Democrats at outgoing Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin's annual fall fundraiser south of Des Moines.
Though Clinton is the favorite for the 2016 Democratic nomination should she run, she advised the audience and the media on Sunday that her focus was on the November midterm elections. Still, she left just enough hints that a second bid for president could come, and that it might begin in Iowa.
1. IT'S GREAT TO BE BACK IN IOWA.
After posing for photographs turning a grill full of red meat at Harkin's farewell "steak fry," Clinton stopped to say hello to the remaining reporters, after many had left.
Asked whether she was glad to be back in Iowa, where her 2008 campaign hit a costly bump, she said: "It's great, it's fabulous to be back. I love Iowa."
Then she launched into an anecdote she often told in Iowa at the outset of her 2008 campaign. "I first came to Iowa when I was about, I can't remember, I was either 9 or 10," she said. "And we were with my dad, and we went to Des Moines and we stayed at the Tall Corn Motel. I've had a great impression ever since."
2. SOME VOTERS ARE READY.
Clinton insisted the point of speaking at Harkin's event was to boost 2014 candidates. But she dropped hints of a potential 2016 candidacy into her speech to an audience packed with people wearing "Ready" stickers, symbols of the Ready for Hillary political action committee that is laying the groundwork for a potential campaign.
Clinton described her personal concerns first as an expectant grandmother. "And then of course, there's that other thing," she said, fueling a slow but steady rise in cheers from the crowd. "Well, it is true, I am thinking about it, but for today that is not why I'm here." The caveat prompted a corresponding moan of disappointment.
"Too many people only get excited about presidential campaigns," she said later. "Look, I get excited about presidential campaigns too." she said. Again, cheers erupted.
3. OLD ADVERSARIES, NOW FRIENDS.
Clinton, who dueled Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, joked about wondering whatever happened to that "young senator from Illinois."
"It's been seven years and a lot has changed," she said. "We went from rivals to partners to friends, and sometimes we would even reminisce about old days."
She added, "Under President Obama's leadership, our country is on the road to recovery," before rattling off a list of improving economic indicators in Iowa, such as its unemployment rate of less than 5 percent.
Specifically, she cited Obama's signature domestic initiative, the 2010 health care bill, which Republicans have aggressively opposed. "President Obama and the rest of us will be quick to say we've got a lot of work to do," she said.
4. THE GENDER LINE.
Clinton repeatedly noted during her 2008 campaign that she didn't want to become president simply because of her gender. But she pressed hard Sunday on gender issues.
Referring to U.S. House candidate Staci Appel of Iowa, Clinton connected her pro-middle class message specifically to women. "Her experience with the economic pressures facing Iowa families made her think, maybe we can do better," said Clinton, who in 2008 had bemoaned Iowa's failure to elect a woman to Congress.
"Iowans have a choice to make," she said, "a chance to elect a senator who knows that women should be able to make our own health care decisions." The comment, a reference to Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Bruce Braley's support for abortion rights, prompted loud sustained cheers — first from women, then men — and a standing ovation.
5. BACK IN THE SCRUM
After seven years off the campaign trail, Clinton's "I'm back!" was not just a friendly hello to Iowa, but seemed to mark her return to retail campaigning.
After she and former President Clinton finished speaking, she bounded down the stairs from the stage grinning, marching toward the throng of people standing at the plastic partition that separated the stage and the crowd.
Bookended by Secret Service agents, she worked along the fence, shaking hands, posing for pictures and signing copies of her latest book and "Ready for Hillary" signs.
Asked by a reporter if she'll be back to Iowa again, she said, "Well, we'll do what we can."