Hillary Clinton: From Iowa to Ehwa and back

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Iowa

image copyrightReuters
image captionHillary Clinton has retained some of her guardedness as she returns her focus to domestic politics, Kim Ghattas says

"Hello Iowa! I'm baaaaaack."

It took 2,446 days for Hillary Clinton to return to the state which caused her so much pain in 2008.

That year, she left Iowa after taking third place in the state's primary contest.

On Sunday she was back with her husband, more experience, and some humour, perhaps a bit forced.

But the key question was whether she was bringing with her some of the warmth and approachability she had demonstrated consistently on the international stage and which had been so lacking in her presidential race.

The setting certainly lent itself to relaxed encounters with voters. Hay bales, open fields, blue skies with white clouds, grilled steaks and potato salads.

It was a perfect Sunday afternoon in a bucolic setting for an Iowa marquee food event, and a political institution: the Harkin steak fry.

image copyrightReuters
image captionIn the primary contests, the presidential race is centred on meet-and-greet events like the Harkin Steak Fry

2016 speculation

Senator Tom Harkin, retiring after 40 years in politics, is taking his steak fry with him and invited Bill and Hillary Clinton to attend his last hurrah.

Ostensibly, the Clintons were there to pay tribute to Mr Harkin, and get the crowds fired up for the 2014 mid-term elections in November.

But there was only one way to explain the record 200 reporters who showed up to cover the event: speculation about a potential Hillary presidential run in 2016.

Ambassador for America returns home

image copyrightAFP

Hillary Clinton visited 112 countries in four years, making her the most-travelled secretary of state

Foreign Policy magazine's Secretary of Schlep slideshow has 112 photos, one from each country (registration required)

"Her total time spent travelling adds up to 2084.21 hours (or 86.8 days), and she will have racked up 956,733 miles," it notes

Since leaving the state department in 2013, Mrs Clinton has already given plenty of speeches and interviews and spent the summer promoting her book.

She has shaken hands with fans along the way but this was her first real foray into retail, domestic politics in a crowd of people sizing her up as a potential candidate.

When Mrs Clinton went on her first overseas trip as secretary of state in February 2009, her team organised town hall meetings, transposing the American approach for running for office to international diplomacy.

Her first town hall overseas was at Seoul's Ehwa university - from Iowa to Ehwa, her staff transposed an American approach to engagement with people.

Mrs Clinton thoroughly enjoyed those encounters and by the end of her first year at the state department, she had shed her guarded political cloak.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionHillary Clinton holds a town-hall style lecture on her first official trip as Secretary of State in 2009


She spoke with authority and gravitas and was able to do so with passion and empathy as well as genuine interest when engaging in people-to-people diplomacy, meeting with students or women groups or businessmen, even in prickly Pakistan.

When she left the building in 2013 she was also soaring in the polls at home.

But with her return to politics in the US, her guardedness seems to have returned.

She still appears uncomfortable or uncertain on the domestic stage. Her speech in front of the hay bales was scripted, and somewhat flat. She drew some cheers, mostly when she talked about women's rights or hinted at her intentions for 2016.

But she didn't speak with the passion she usually demonstrated overseas. She's still better at mostly unscripted comments, roaming a stage or in interviews where her knowledge of the issues shines and her wit comes through, whether on policy or politics.

As secretary of state, Mrs Clinton always came to the back of the plane to speak to the press pack and regularly sat down for dinner or drinks in world capitals. Her aides said she genuinely enjoyed the exchanges.

But since leaving Foggy Bottom, Mrs Clinton has shown reflexive guardedness in her encounters with US national politics reporters. Perhaps this is because they too approach her with a degree of scepticism remaining from the miserable relationship she had with the media in 2008 and the many acrimonious years that preceded it.

She has yet to really engage with the new press pack following her every move in the US. On Sunday, it appeared initially she would keep her distance as well. With Bill and the Harkins she flipped some steaks by a grill for staged photos, in a penned-off area at the top of the hill, away from the crowds.

Mrs Clinton ignored the reporters and left after a few minutes, but later returned and spent 15 minutes shaking hands and chatting to them.

image copyrightReuters
image captionThough Clinton has made no official announcement, supporters have already begun creating the infrastructure for a campaign

Lessons learned

She didn't say much, insisting that this day was all about 2014 and the key mid-term elections.

The American media have speculated that her presence in Iowa was yet another sign she was preparing to run, but it's probably more accurate to say she's preparing to make a decision.

In typical fashion, she is approaching the process diligently, with a checklist, doing her homework to find out the state of play, the state of politics, the areas where she could make a difference, talking to donors, supporters, and most importantly trying to determine what her message is going to be.

Her trip to Iowa was part of the decision-making process, a key opportunity for her to re-acquaint herself with the gruelling rhythm of retail politics, which she didn't excel at during her 2008 campaign.

After the speeches, she and Bill spent half-hour shaking hands with Iowans lining up along a fence. She signed T-shirts and books and posed for photos.

When I interviewed her last year before she stepped down as secretary of state, I asked her what she had learned in that job that she wished she had known as a presidential candidate.

image copyrightAFP
image captionClinton came in third place in the 2008 Iowa caucuses

"I have learned even more about how to relate to people of many different backgrounds," she said, suggesting she had internalised some of the lessons of her failure to connect with voters.

A quick informal poll of Iowans at the steak fry after her speech indicated people thought she had done well but not tremendous.

But did she enjoy spending half an hour taking pictures and shaking hands with people she may never see again? Did she enjoy chatting with the new press pack following her? Was it bearable enough that she could do it for months on end? Only Hillary knows.

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