DES MOINES — Hillary Rodham Clinton returns to Iowa this weekend for the first time since her devastating loss in the 2008 presidential caucuses, arriving as the undeclared front-runner for the 2016 Democratic nomination but still trailed by criticism about her first campaign here.
The former secretary of state and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, will be in Iowa for Sen. Tom Harkin's annual Steak Fry on Sunday.
But if the ostensible purpose of her visit is to pay tribute to Harkin, who is retiring after 40 years in elective office, she will not escape from the speculation that this is simply one more step toward a formal presidential campaign. At a minimum, it will mark her initial foray on the campaign trail for this fall's midterm elections.
"I don't expect her to talk about her future decisions," said Harkin's wife, Ruth, who is a longtime Hillary Clinton friend and supporter. "They're going to be announced next year. But this is a very significant moment for her to greet Iowa voters."
Clinton's 2008 effort in Iowa was plagued by startup problems and affected by the overall dysfunction of her national campaign team. By the time she corrected her course, Barack Obama had moved ahead of her.
But it was more than staff problems that hurt Clinton here in 2008. As a candidate, she often chafed at the demands of the caucus process, including the time required to court individual activists across the state.
At this point, Clinton has no strong challenger in Iowa, for her a welcome contrast to eight years ago when she faced then-Sen. Obama and John Edwards, the party's 2004 vice presidential nominee.
Nonetheless, she won't have Iowa totally to herself this weekend. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, who is contemplating running for president, plans to appear at several events. Vice President Joe Biden, who was the featured speaker at last year's Steak Fry, is scheduled to be in the state next week. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, has been a frequent visitor here.
Still, she remains the dominant prospective candidate in her party. Anticipation of Clinton's appearance (as well as her husband's), and the fact that this is the last of Harkin's Steak Fry events, will draw a large crowd at a balloon field in Indianola on Sunday afternoon.
Democratic activists and local party officials are eager to see and hear from her, even as they offer suggestions for how she should run differently in 2016.
Walt Pregler, the Democratic chairman in Dubuque County, called Clinton "a lead-pipe cinch" if she runs for the nomination. "There's a great deal of support for her in Dubuque among my central committee," he said. "They like her, and they like Bill."
But many of these same activists say Clinton needs to learn from the mistakes of her last campaign, which drew criticism for not understanding the culture of Iowa's caucus politics and because the Clinton entourage often got in the way of her ability to connect more effectively with voters.
Julie Stewart, Democratic chairwoman in Dallas County outside Des Moines, said her personal experience with Clinton has always positive, but she was critical of the Clinton national team of 2008.
"She brought people from New York, and that just didn't work," she said. "Obama hired Iowans or Midwesterners.
Even though she grew up in the Midwest, the people she brought with her, I don't think they connected well."
Bonnie Campbell, who was co-chairwoman of Clinton's 2008 Iowa campaign, said the criticism of Clinton as someone who could not connect with Iowa voters still baffles her.
"I'm mystified by it. I attended many events where she stayed till the last hand had been shaken. ... There was a really strong, important give and take. I just don't know. I don't think that's accurate."
But Campbell acknowledged the challenges Clinton would face trying to run a campaign close to the ground, given her stature and the security protection that accompanies her.
"The hardest challenge of all is putting together a strategy that's true to her personality and style, which I do think the one-on-one is," she said. "Thinking about how you do retail politics when you are such almost a larger-than-life figure is a real challenge."
This time, Iowa activists say that whether she has real or nominal competition, she should run all-out in Iowa ahead of the 2016 caucuses. And even supporters say they hope she will have competition, if only to sharpen her skills as a candidate.
"In Iowa, shoe leather wins elections better than anything," Pregler said. "Just go greet and meet.... I'd just tell her to be Hillary."