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.
John Edwards, in what is now his signature populist language, stressed a similar point. "The system in Washington is rigged, it is broken," he said. He dismissed the idea of giving lobbyists a role in crafting legislation. "If you give them a seat at the table, they'll take all the food." If Obama is a soother, these days Edwards is a fighter. "We can't just replace corporate Republicans with corporate Democrats," he said emphatically.
Hillary Clinton responded to these criticisms, insisting that she's got what it takes to push for the bold, big policies--like universal healthcare--that the party faithful want their leaders to enact. "I understand that the special interests don't want change," she said, speaking after Bill Richardson and before Chris Dodd. "They're willing to just keep dragging us further and further into the ditch. We're going to take them on this time, and when I'm President, we're going to get it done. We're going to have universal healthcare." (On Monday Clinton unveiled  the third part of her plan to cover all Americans.)
Clinton distinguished herself by talking up the possibility of electing the first woman President. And she wasn't shy about referencing her other half. "Why, even Alan Greenspan, a self-described Republican, gives my husband credit for doing such a good job on the economy," she said to loud applause.
Domestic issues, particularly healthcare, took up the bulk of the candidates' stump speeches. Yet the war in Iraq was never far from anyone's mind. Bill Richardson spoke of the need to withdraw US troops immediately and not leave any residual forces behind. Obama said he wouldn't support any funding bill for the war that didn't include a timetable for withdrawal, a stance Edwards has been advocating for months. Joe Biden said he'd start bringing combat troops home now.
Yet only Biden, who had the bad luck of speaking last, focused almost exclusively on Iraq. "This election is as serious as a heart attack," he told the crowd at the beginning of his remarks. That's because the war itself was "deadly serious." This week, Biden said, "George Bush made it abundantly clear that he will not end the war." He noted that the Defense Department uses to term "fallen angels" to describe US soldiers killed in combat. "How many more angels have to fall before this war ends?" Biden asked.
The crowd had thinned considerably by the time Biden spoke--and the clear sky had turned an ominous gray. Yet still thousands of Iowans remained. Much has been said, pro and con, about Iowa's position as the first caucus in the nation. But whatever the fairness of this arrangement, no one can doubt that Iowans take their politics seriously. "Iowans don't take this for granted," said Kevin Miskell, vice president of the Iowa Farmers Union  and an Edwards supporter from Stanhope, population 488. "We like to be courted."
The campaigns made a point of displaying their strength in numbers. Everywhere you looked there were Obama supporters in blue T-shirts, followed not far behind by Edwards and Clinton partisans (the latter two even stood side by side while raucously greeting their candidates as they arrived). Hillary's supporters were largely white, female and middle-aged to elderly--much like Iowa itself. Obama's crew was younger and far more diverse. Fresh off a string of union endorsements, Edwards had plenty of activists from organized labor in tow.
If anyone was expected to break out of the pack, it didn't happen. Hillary has been rising in the polls of late, but the race has essentially been tied between Clinton, Edwards and Obama for months. The speeches on Sunday likely did little to alter this dynamic. Harkin estimated that half of the crowd was still undecided. Historically, many of these voters will wait until the last few weeks of the campaign to settle on a candidate. It may have felt like Election Day, the highways strewn with campaign signs and volunteers dispatched en masse, but for Iowa Democrats, the Steak Fry is a mere appetizer.