Iowans like their food fried. At the Iowa State Fair, you can sample such delicacies as a fried Mars bars, fried Twinkies and even fried pickles. So it’s fitting that the unofficial kickoff for the fall season of the Democratic campaign for President should be held at a “steak fry.”
Iowa Senator Tom Harkin has been pan-frying steaks and talking politics for thirty years. His annual Steak Fry, at a picturesque balloon field in central Iowa, twenty miles south of Des Moines, now functions as a rite of passage for presidential candidates and a can’t-miss political event for reporters and political junkies.
Last year, Barack Obama dazzled a crowd of 3,500 Iowa Democrats, helping to convince the Senator that a run for President was plausible. “This is where it all started,” David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist, told me.
This year, unable to settle on one keynote speaker, Harkin invited all the Democratic candidates for President (except for Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel). If the GOP’s August straw poll in Ames reflected the anemic state of the current Republican Party, the Steak Fry proved just the opposite about the Democrats. Twelve thousand people showed up on Sunday, the largest turnout in the event’s history, to enjoy a plate of steak, baked beans and potato salad and evaluate the future nominees. The Obama campaign alone said it brought 3,000 supporters. “This is my idea of a surge!” Harkin enthusiastically told the crowd.
On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, the six candidates sat on a makeshift stage behind a giant American flag and three red tractors artfully placed on a rolling hill. Each had ten minutes to give what amounted to a condensed version of their stump speeches. Obama had the good fortune of speaking first (the order was determined by drawing out of a hat), and he touched on many of the themes that were reiterated throughout the day: the need to end the war in Iraq, provide universal healthcare, restore the Constitution, spread the benefits of the economy fairly and combat global warming and push for energy independence. “I don’t think there’s anything that’s been said that anybody on this stage disagrees with,” said Senator Joe Biden. At this stage in the game, the candidates seem determined to get along at public gatherings and present a united front against the Bush Administration (the names Giuliani, Romney and Thompson never came up).
Yet in subtle ways, they tried to differentiate themselves. Obama sold himself as an outsider who could fundamentally disinfect Washington. “If we win an election but don’t change our politics, we’re not going to be able to bring about the change that’s absolutely necessary,” he said, trying to paint the Clintons as Washington insiders without ever mentioning them by name. The reason every American lacks healthcare, Obama argued, is because industry lobbyists bought off Republicans and Democrats alike. Same with the oil companies who’ve kept us dependent on foreign oil.