Sunday I made my annual trek to Indianola, IA for the 35th annual Harkin Steak Fry. Democrats from all over the state have been gathering in Warren County every September for three and a half decades, but not a single steak has ever been fried; they’re grilled (and delicious). At this point, no one even knows where the name came from, including Senator Harkin, but that’s what it is. Having family roots in southern Iowa, I always see someone I know when I make the trek north, and this year was no exception. I ran into my Con Law professor about fifteen minutes after I finished reading next week’s cases, so I passed the impromptu oral quiz he gave me on the spot, so I’m good with him ‘til midterm…But I digress.
This year’s guest of honor was Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, and everyone knows what that means…he’s testing the waters for a presidential run in 2016. He played coy when asked directly about it, but he must have forgotten who he was talking to…namely, Iowans…and they know from B.S., but they’re too polite to call it out. The Harkin Steak Fry is not so much a rite of passage for potential Democratic Candidates as it is a prerequisite. Democrats who want to be President always show up there to test the waters and their ability to engage the first-in-the-nation voters – who happen to possess the most cheerful and polite sense of entitlement you could possibly imagine – before they make it official. Bill Clinton made two appearances there. President Obama was there in 2006 and in 2010 he sent the Davids, Axelrod and Plouffe.
I have to say that O’Malley came off a hell of a lot better in Indianola than he did in Charlotte during that other big gathering of Democrats that happened this month, and he’s apparently been working on his Bill Clinton impersonation because when he talked about the Explainer-in-Chief, he treated the crowd to it and he sounded just like him. The crowd, in turn, treated him to belly laughs and applause.
I’ve been to a few of these things, but I’ve never been to one where the future-candidate dynamic was in play like it was this year. Overall, I left with a positive impression of a politician that I didn’t know all that much about (other than that he heads up the Democratic Governor’s Association) before today, and a lot of Iowa’s Democratic activists did, too. He’s youthful and energetic with John Edwards-type good looks, and he gave an engaging stemwinder of a speech that fired up the crowd and will supply a treasure trove of soundbites and videos for the ads he will surely be running in the state as soon as the 2014 midterms are over. And if he keeps on coming across like he did Sunday, he just might have a shot at the brass ring.