MASON CITY, Iowa – As Jim Webb pitched his presidential qualifications to Democratic activists at a restaurant in this northern Iowa town, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s image flashed from a TV mounted behind the bar. Text scrolling across the screen heralded her imminent entrance into the 2016 campaign.
Nobody paid much attention. The eyes of about 70 activists stayed on Webb, the former Virginia senator who is exploring a campaign of his own. Several posed for photos with him. One man asked for an autograph.
Even while Clinton’s candidacy loomed over Webb’s event Sunday night, just as it does the entire Democratic nomination process, Iowans looked at alternatives. The state is full of Democrats who thrive on tweaking conventional wisdom. Expectations for Clinton cannot be any higher at this point, making it all the easier for a challenger to gain attention and momentum with a strong second-place finish.
Iowans participating in the Democratic caucus have a solid history of picking the party’s nominee.
“Iowa’s role is to be the great leveler, as we say,” said Anita Dunn, a Democratic strategist who worked on Barack Obama’s successful 2008 campaign. “I think that is something that Hillary Clinton understands, and so does Martin O’Malley,” she said, referring to the former Maryland governor who is considering a White House bid.
So it’s no accident that Clinton’s first priority for her new campaign is to shower attention on the Hawkeye State, a place that hasn’t traditionally embraced her family. When Bill Clinton first ran in 1992, he skipped the Iowa caucuses — competing that year seemed hopeless because Tom Harkin, then one of the state’s US senators, was running.
The state in 2008 delivered Hillary Clinton a heartbreaking loss. It was the first place where her campaign that was supposed to be inevitable took on water. Seventy percent of Democratic Iowa caucus-goers voted against Clinton, leaving her with a third-place finish. She didn’t return for six years, coming last year for Harkin’s annual picnic where she awkwardly announced, “I’m back.”
Her relationship with New Hampshire, and its first-in-the-nation primary, is far warmer. Bill Clinton earned the nickname “the Comeback Kid” for his second-place finish there amid scandal in 1992, and Hillary Clinton took first prize there in 2008.
Clinton’s campaign staff already started downplaying expectations for her in Iowa. “This is going to be a competitive caucus,” a top Clinton campaign official said. The official pointed out that the only candidates to take more than 50 percent of the vote in recent Iowa caucuses were sitting presidents, vice presidents, and Harkin, the home state favorite.
Clinton is portraying herself as humble in the early days of her 2016 run. After announcing her candidacy Sunday, she piled into a van to drive halfway across the country to Iowa. She tweeted out a photo of herself with a family along the way. Surveillance footage of her buying food at a Chipotle in Ohio circulated online.
The voyage couldn’t be more different from her travel to Iowa seven months ago. The tab for the charter plane to deposit Bill and Hillary Clinton at the Harkin Steak Fry in September ran $50,000, according to federal campaign disclosure papers. A motorcade including silver SUVs and security personnel ferried the former first couple to the grassy field where the barbecue was held.
Such trappings don’t help a candidate forge a relationship with the voters. And because that relationship trumps the frills here, Democratic strategists said, Iowa is one of the few places where a national campaign can be launched with millions of dollars, not tens of millions.
“It’s face-to-face campaigning in people’s living rooms and backyards,” Dunn said. “It’s a place where candidates can make up with their personal time what they don’t have in funding.”
On Sunday, that was Webb’s card to play. Wearing jeans and a blazer, the long-shot hopeful gave brief remarks at a restaurant in Mason City, a town that’s surrounded by miles of fallow corn fields. A dance floor near the bar was sticky, probably from beer spilled the previous night. People laughed about it and munched on miniature cupcakes.
One supporter approached Webb after his talk and held up a few books for the potential presidential candidate to sign. Looking into the senator’s eyes, he thanked him for being a “soldier-statesman” and walked away beaming.
It’s this type of intimate interaction that Iowans desire and Clinton will try to reproduce. She’ll visit a branch of a community college Tuesday in Monticello — a town of about 3,800. She goes to Norwalk Wednesday for a small business roundtable.
Eight years ago, she waited a full week after her announcement to set foot in the state and then gave a speech to a packed auditorium in Des Moines. The campaign started with a gaffe — Clinton’s voice singing the national anthem off-tune was captured on a microphone and the Drudge Report catapulted it around the Internet.
So far, the latest Clinton approach seems to be working. Rick Smith, a member of the Iowa Democratic State Central Committee, said Clinton’s announcement video, and its focus on people, not the politician running, struck the right chord. “Listening to folks who’ve fallen through the cracks, that’s a good start,” he said.
“We have a tradition of wanting to look the whole field over,” said Iowa House Democratic leader Mark Smith, who co-hosted the Mason City event — a fund-raiser for two members of the Legislature.
But this brings up another problem for Clinton, and one that other candidates, particularly O’Malley, have been able to exploit: showing up.
O’Malley made news here with a string of events last week, including one at a tavern near Des Moines where he sang a few songs. It was just beer and Democrats.
“I’m very impressed with O’Malley,” said Todd Prichard, an Iowa state representative who saw O’Malley when he spoke at the state capital to Democratic lawmakers. “He’s down to earth. He’s talking about the right things.”
But for any of these other candidates to really take on Clinton, they will have to open up with criticism, and they might be reluctant to launch a negative campaign against someone who could end up in the White House.
“I don’t think David beats Goliath if you’re not throwing rocks,” said Travis Lowe, a Democratic strategist with Iowa roots. “And I don’t think any one of these guys are going to throw a rock.”