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Hillary Clinton Keeps Iowa Crowd Guessing About Her Presidential Plans

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former President Bill Clinton and U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin work the grill during Harkin's annual fundraising steak fry in Indianola, Iowa, on Sunday. (AP)

Hillary Clinton, who has a huge lead in many early presidential polls, returned to Iowa on Sunday. The woman who says she has not yet decided on a 2016 presidential run appeared along with former President Bill Clinton in a state she has not visited since she lost the 2008 Iowa caucuses to Barack Obama.

Her speech at the annual steak fry hosted by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, a must-attend event for state Democratic activists, revealed little about her intentions — but also did nothing to dampen the widespread belief that she will indeed run.

Harkin has hosted his steak fry for 37 years. Sunday's was his last, because he'll leave office in January after five terms. The buzz in the crowd, however, was all about Hillary Clinton. The group Ready for Hillary — call it a pre-campaign organization — was everywhere with yard signs, bumper stickers and more.

Cindy Pollard, 57, wasn't looking for a new Hillary T-shirt — she was wearing the one she's had since Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign.

"I was a precinct captain for Hillary. I've been decided. These people are wearing these Ready for Hillary — I have been ready," Pollard said.

It was a gorgeous September Iowa day as the event took place on a huge open field in Indianola. The stage featured a giant American flag and bales of straw; in the background were rolling hills and corn fields.

After speeches by Iowa Democrats running in 2014 for U.S. Senate and House seats and for governor, Sen. Harkin spoke, and then he introduced Clinton.

He mentioned her new memoir: "There are 25 chapters in the book. I'm here to tell you that there are many more chapters to be written in the amazing life of Hillary Clinton."

As the crowd chanted her name, Clinton stepped up to the microphone: "Hello, Iowa. I'm baaaack."

"Now, when Tom Harkin called and asked me to come, I have to admit I wasn't sure what to say. I've got a few things on my mind these days," Clinton teased.

She noted that she and Bill are on grandchild watch, as daughter Chelsea is expecting this month. Then Clinton got to the big thing on this crowd's mind.

"And then, of course, there's that other thing," she said playfully as the crowd cheered.

"It is true I am thinking about it," but she added, "for today that is not why I'm here." The crowd groaned.

"I'm here for the steak," Clinton said.

Nobody expected her to announce anything here. Still, nobody in the crowd seemed to doubt she's running. And some were as coy as Clinton herself about their intentions as voters.

Linda Dedecker, who was wearing a Clinton button, is an accountant from Ames. "I'm considering her," she said, but "I don't know who else is going to run."

Dedecker insisted that it's important for Clinton to really campaign in Iowa — meeting people face to face. There was a sense eight years ago that she and her advisers didn't fully appreciate the state's caucus system. Back then she was the front-runner in the race but stumbled to a third-place finish in the caucuses.

Karen Hill of Marshalltown — a potential supporter — offered this advice for 2016: "Don't take anything for granted — come and hang out with us for a while."

Also at the steak fry, there was a table set up on behalf of the push to get Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren into the race as what her backers call a progressive alternative to Clinton. One Warren supporter said it's important not to anoint Clinton so early — before anyone has officially declared that they are running.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Plenty of candidates are running for president without formally running. Some may never declare, but they still generate plenty of interest.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Texas Governor Rick Perry has turned up in early Republican primary states.

INSKEEP: Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has been campaigning this year for Democrats.

CORNISH: And then there's Hillary Clinton. When running for president in 2008, she lost the Iowa caucuses.

INSKEEP: Now as she considers a run in 2016, she has returned to Iowa, which guaranteed a big attendance of reporters and others at an annual Iowa event. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Let's start with the crowd - 10,000 people were served steak dinner grilled, even though it's the Tom Harkin Steak Fry. Harkin has hosted this event for 37 years in a row. This is the last because he'll leave office in January after five terms in the U.S. Senate, but the buzz in the crowd was all about Hillary Clinton. The group Ready For Hillary, call them a pre-campaign organization, was everywhere with yard signs, bumper stickers and more.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Are you guys here for the free T-shirts and buttons?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Sure.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Well, if I can get you guys to sign up as a supporter - have you done that yet?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I've already done it online.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Perfect.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: What is this for?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: This is a Ready To Vote card. It shows Hillary, if she decides to run.

GONYEA: Nearby, 57-year-old Cindy Pollard doesn't need a new Hillary T-shirt. She's wearing the one she's had since Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign.

CINDY POLLARD: Yes, I was a precinct captain for Hillary.

GONYEA: Fair for me to assume you're not undecided or taking a wait-and-see attitude?

POLLARD: I've been decided. These people are wearing these Ready For Hillary's - I have been ready.

GONYEA: It was a gorgeous, September Iowa day in the town of Indianola. The event took place in a huge, open field. The stage featured a giant American flag and bales of straw - in the background, rolling hills and cornfields. After speeches by Iowa Democrats running in 2014 for the U.S. Senate, Congress and Governor, Senator Harkin spoke and then introduced Hillary Clinton. He mentioned her new memoir.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR TOM HARKIN: There are 25 chapters in that book. I'm here to tell you that there are many more chapters to be written in the amazing life of Hillary Clinton.

(APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: As the crowd chanted her name, Clinton stepped up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, hello, Iowa. I'm back.

GONYEA: She continued in that vein.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

CLINTON: Now when Tom Harkin called and asked me to come, I have to admit I wasn't sure what to say. I've got a few things on my mind these days.

GONYEA: She noted that she and Bill are on grandchild watch. Daughter Chelsea is expecting this month. Then Clinton got to the big thing on this crowd's mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

CLINTON: And then of course there's that other thing, well, it is true. I am thinking about it, but for today that is not why I'm here. I'm here for the steak.

GONYEA: Now, nobody expected her to announce anything here. Still nobody in the crowd seemed to doubt that she's running. And some were as coy as Clinton herself about their intentions as voters. Linda Dedecker is an accountant from Ames, Iowa. She's wearing a Clinton button.

You're wearing a Ready For Hillary button?

LINDA DEDECKER: I am.

GONYEA: Is it because somebody gave it to you? Or are you, like, on board, ready to go?

DEDECKER: I'm considering her. I don't know who else is going to run.

GONYEA: Dedecker insists it's important that Clinton really campaign in Iowa, meeting people face-to-face. There was a sense eight years ago that she and her advisers didn't fully appreciate the state's caucus system. Back then she was the front-runner in the race, but stumbled to a third-place finish in the caucuses. Karen Hill of Marshalltown, a potential supporter, offers this brief advice for 2016.

KAREN HILL: Don't take anything for granted. Come and hang out with us for a while.

GONYEA: Don't look at those polls.

HILL: Yeah.

GONYEA: Also at the steak fry, there was a table set up behalf of the push to get Senator Elizabeth Warren into the race, as what her backers call a progressive alternative to Clinton. One Warren supporter said it's important not to anoint Clinton so early before anyone has officially declared that they're running. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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