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Hillary and the Iowa steak fry [Commentary]

Democrats from around the country, and political chroniclers as well, again flocked to Iowa last weekend for retiring Sen. Tom Harkin's annual steak fry, a traditional event for raising cholesterol levels and presidential ambitions.

It may or may not have been the last such gathering, considering Mr. Harkin's departure from the Senate after five terms as the party's progressive standard-bearer in many causes, successful and failed. But because Iowa remains first on the electoral calendar for selecting convention delegates, the parade of White House hopefuls there doubtlessly will continue.

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The only time in recent memory that Democrats didn't rush to Iowa to contest its kickoff precinct caucuses for choosing delegates was in 1992, when Mr. Harkin himself ran for president. All other prominent contenders, including the eventual nominee, Bill Clinton, stayed clear in deference to Mr. Harkin and presumably, his local support, though he never emerged as a serious challenger to Mr. Clinton.

This time around, however, another Clinton -- wife Hillary -- prominently showed up accompanied by Bill in tribute to the retiring Mr. Harkin. More notably to the assembled Democrats and national press corps, she was there to reintroduce herself to Iowans who six years earlier had rejected her first presidential bid, voting her third in their caucuses behind Barack Obama and John Edwards.

Beyond a humiliation for the allegedly front-running Hillary Clinton, the 2008 caucuses revealed a damaging sense of entitlement and an inferior grass-roots operation, in a state where personal handshaking and schmoozing are essential.

Although Hillary bounced back in the ensuing New Hampshire Democratic primary and made a race of it in 2008, she had to settle for the consolation prize of secretary of state in the Obama administration. But in the next four years she made the most of it, winning very high marks for her State Department stewardship. She managed to construct a foreign-policy identity of her own as a somewhat tougher advocate of selective intervention in world trouble spots.

In a recent Atlantic magazine interview, she made clear that as secretary she had advocated earlier aid to Syrian insurgents in the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. She said then that "the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad ... left a big vacuum, which the jihadist have now filled."

At the Harkin steak fry in Indianola, Ms. Clinton played with the crowd, opening by declaring "I'm baaaack!" and acknowledging that she's thinking about running again in 2016, which seems obvious now. She concentrated on urging Iowa Democrats to turn out for November's congressional midterm elections, urging them to back Rep. Bruce Braley for Mr. Harkin's seat and help keep the Senate in Democratic hands.

Perhaps even more so now than in 2008, Ms. Clinton and millions already signed up "Ready for Hillary" have generated a sense of inevitability around her presidential nomination. It is fanned by the absence of any credible challenger so far. Vice President Joe Biden could run for president again, particularly if Hillary surprisingly declines, but he is frozen place until she runs or doesn't.

A CNN poll of registered Iowa Democrats on the eve of the Harkin steak fry gave Ms. Clinton 53 percent support to 15 for Biden and others in the single digits. One of them, retiring Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, got 2 percent. But at only 51, the generally liberal O'Malley could emerge as the hope of many Democrats still not enchanted with the former first lady, who as a New York senator voted to authorize the use of U.S. force leading up to the 2003 invasion ofIraq.

More pertinent now will be how she positions herself in the continuing debate within the Democratic Party and in the country over President Obama's declaration that he will extend into Syria the fight against the emerging terrorist Islamic State.

As a former member of Mr. Obama's administration, Ms. Clinton must walk a fine line between embracing his still-cautious policy and charting a course for her own likely candidacy over the next two years. It will require accommodating both the dovish and hawkish elements in her party, and in the nation as a whole.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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