INDIANOLA, Iowa — "Hello, Iowa!" says Hillary Clinton, who has not set foot in Iowa for six years and eight months and in fact, until quite recently, has loathed the place.
She cautiously enunciates each word from her prepared text, even the jokes. She is careful, modulated, meticulous. She is Hillary.
"It feels like just yesterday that I was here," she says, and the crowd laughs. "As I recall, there was a young senator from Illinois here, and I wonder whatever became of him."
There is more laughter at the reference to Barack Obama.
Perfect rolling green pastures provide the background. There is a red tractor, and there is a green hay wagon. A crowd of 10,000 is arrayed on lawn chairs. A large American flag is the backdrop on a low stage, where the honored guests, men and women, sit in their shirt sleeves under a sunny sky.
Correction. Everyone is in shirt sleeves except Hillary, who keeps the green jacket of her green pantsuit on. She can make a steak fry seem formal. Her husband, Bill, is in a red gingham shirt. "I always thought I look like a tablecloth," he will say later, "but I am told it is appropriate."
This is Sen. Tom Harkin's 37th and last steak fry. The liberal Democratic firebrand is retiring — but not before Hillary and Bill Clinton headline his last event.
Hillary was supposed to speak last, but that would have violated protocol. Bill is a former president, and Hillary is merely someone who wants to be a former president.
So she speaks before him. "Of course, there's that other thing," she says of her possible presidential pursuit. "It is true I am thinking about it. But for today, that is not why I am here. I am here for the steak."
More laughter. Iowa is a nice place for presidential campaign talk. It is not representative of America — it is made up largely of small towns and farms — but it goes first in the presidential selection process, and thus it can make or break campaigns.
In 2008, it broke Hillary. She had been ballyhooed as the "inevitable" Democratic nominee, but her third-place finish made her look a lot less inevitable. She won in the next contest, New Hampshire, but Obama ran a nearly flawless campaign and easily outmaneuvered her for the nomination.
"I grew up in a middle-class family in the middle of America," she likes to say. But her middle of America was an affluent suburb of Chicago. The middle of America here consists of farm fields like the one she is apparently standing on.
Though, in reality, this is a hot air balloon field. Insert your own joke about politicians and hot air here.
She carefully checks off the boxes in her 20-minute speech:
"Equal pay for equal work.
"If you work hard and play by the rules, you deserve the possibility of a good life for you and your family.
"When you get knocked down, get right back up!
"Under President Obama's leadership, our economy is on the road to recovery."
And one last joke. "Look, I get excited by presidential campaigns, too," she says but reminds those in the audience that they must elect Democrats to the House and Senate in November.
On Wednesday, Vice President Joe Biden will be in Des Moines for an official visit to a group called Nuns on the Bus, which is, as it turns out, a group of nuns on a bus. The real purpose of Biden's visit, however, may be to drive Hillary crazy. And he may have succeeded.
Does she really need this? She makes a number of references in her speech to the impending birth of her first grandchild, and some believe she will pass up a run for the presidency to be a grandmother.
I doubt it. This is the woman who said to her supporters in June 2008: "Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it's got about 18 million cracks in it."
And it feels as if she is quite prepared to multitask — be a grandmother and run the nation, too.
And there was one very good sign here: Bill is playing along this time. When he got up to speak after Hillary was done, he was very careful not to overshadow her. He even started with a shopworn joke.
"Thank kyew! Thank kyew!" he said to the applause as he began. "Everybody has said everything that needs to be said, but not everybody has said it yet."
This was his fourth steak fry. "In 2003, it rained like crazy," he said. "I felt like a 20-something at Woodstock."
But then he spoke about Haiti and the economy and the state of America, and his only really memorable line was: "We are less racist, sexist and homophobic than we have ever been, but we don't want to spend time around anyone who doesn't agree with us." Which is what he said, virtually word for word, at the Newseum in Washington on Sept. 8.
So he did what was required of him, which was to fade into the background.
After the speeches were over, Hillary worked the rope line, autographing signs and posing for pictures.
"Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton are now the comeback couple!" Tom Harkin had said of them in his speech.
But he was careful not to endorse Hillary. She spent all eight years of her Senate term working with Harkin. But Harkin told The Washington Post this weekend: "I'm not terribly close (to her), but we've known each other for a long time."
Translation: Nobody gets close to Hillary.
She is going to have to change that impression for Iowans this time around, however. And she has work to do.
She has gone out of her way to avoid the state. Forget about her years as secretary of state. Iowa is not a foreign country (though it appeared to be one to Hillary), and she had no obligation to come here.
But if you examine her speaking schedule since leaving office and her book-signing schedule, you can see that she has flown over Iowa several times in search of friendlier locales, such as Connecticut, Florida, Nevada, California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Texas, Colorado and even Canada.
The closest she came to Iowa was a June book signing in Kansas City, Missouri, which is only three hours from Des Moines by car and 52 minutes by plane. There are bookstores in Des Moines. But Hillary was not interested in going to them.
For a simple reason: She hated the place. It is where her dream of being the first female president was trumped by Obama's dream of becoming the first black president. (And considering Iowa is only 2.9 percent black, Obama's achievement was considerable.)
How did she rationalize her loss in Iowa? Iowa hates women. "I was shocked when I learned Iowa and Mississippi have never elected a woman governor, senator or member of Congress," Hillary told The Des Moines Register in October 2007. "There has got to be something at work here."
Maybe there is something at work. Maybe there is something in the air or water that causes Iowans to spurn female candidates. But was this a good thing to accuse Iowans of just three months before they voted on your future?
And then there was the whole caucus process, of which Iowa is very proud. Hillary hates that, too. "You have a limited period of time on one day to have your voices heard," Hillary said after she lost Iowa. "That is troubling to me."
She didn't like Obama much, either.
"There's a big difference between our courage and our convictions, what we believe and what we're willing to fight for," Hillary told reporters as she campaigned in 2007.
Asked whether she was raising questions about Obama's character, she said: "It's beginning to look a lot like that. You know, it really is."
She said that the Obama campaign had been attacking her and that she was tired of it and was going to respond. "Now the fun part starts," she said.
But the fun part never started for her. Iowa was a body blow to Hillary. It established Obama as a serious candidate, and — though he would lose some states to her — he never really looked back.
"I have absolutely no interest in running for president again," Hillary told ABC News on Oct. 14, 2009.
But that was then, and this is now. And now she has to face Iowans once more.
Bonnie Campbell, Iowa co-chairwoman of Hillary's 2008 campaign, told CNN recently: "She knows Iowa now. Yes, it's possible some very compelling person could come along and strike a chord. That has happened. I just think it's harder this time."
Which is the best thing Hillary has going for her: very little serious competition.
She ended her speech this day with a promise.
"I will not let another seven years go by," she said, assuring the crowd that she will return.
You bet she will. She has no choice.
Roger Simon is Politico's chief political columnist. His new e-book, "Reckoning: Campaign 2012 and the Fight for the Soul of America," can be found on Amazon.com, BN.com and iTunes. To find out more about Roger Simon and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.