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Iowa Democrats: Bring on the Hillary Clinton challengers

DES MOINES, Iowa - Hillary Clinton may seem like a shoe-in for the Democratic nomination if she runs for president in 2016, but Iowa Democrats - the first group of voters that the former secretary of state will have to charm on her way to the White House - have another plan in mind.

They want some alternatives to Clinton, who came in third in the Iowa caucuses in 2008 and aren't shy about saying so.

"I want to see what others do, like Elizabeth Warren," says Nancy Bobo, one of President Obama's earliest supporters in the state during the 2008 election. Warren, a senator from Massachusetts who was elected in 2012, said last year, "I'm not running for president and I plan to serve out my term." Still, some voters are holding out hope she'll declare her candidacy.

"No one thought there was any room for anyone else in 2008," Bobo says, "and there was."

Hillary Clinton rallies Iowa Democrats at Harkin Steak Fry

Bobo was one of thousands who attended Sunday's annual steak fry hosted by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, but she was one of the attendees not sporting a "Ready for Hillary" sticker. Hundreds of volunteers from "Ready for Hillary," a political action committee set up by Clinton's supporters to prepare for a possible candidacy, distributed stickers during the event.

Both Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, spoke at the Steak Fry. She was warmly received, but the enthusiasm was not over the top: No chants of "Run, Hillary, run," were heard, perhaps reflecting an understanding from her supporters that Clinton may lack the spark to inspire voters the way Mr. Obama did in 2008, even if she now is the party's best hope at winning the White House.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley has been the Democrats' most active potential alternative to Clinton. He has already made three trips to Iowa this year and contributed $31,500 directly to candidates. He also is the only White House prospect paying staff - 11 of them this fall - to work on Iowa campaigns.

There are other Democrats who have had a presence, too. Former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia have both headlined events in the state for Democratic activists, met with candidates, and courted important constituencies like labor unions. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar has been to Iowa twice since 2013, and she is slated to be the main attraction at the annual Democratic party fundraiser this October. Then there's the liberal independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who has visited Iowa and was held town hall-style meetings in the state the same SundayClinton spoke at the steak fry.

Warren has not made a trip to Iowa but she is supporting state's Democrats in other ways, with plans to host an October fundraiser for Rep. Bruce Braley, who is running to fill Harkin's seat.

Vice President Joe Biden has his own group of Iowa loyalists cultivated over decades of presidential campaigns in the U.S., first in the late 1980s and then again 20 years later. He was scheduled to meet with Democratic candidates during a trip to the state Wednesday.

Hillary Clinton's Iowa trip stirs 2016 speculation

Despite the alternatives, Clinton is still the overwhelming favorite. A CNN/Opinion Research poll taken the week before she came to the steak fry showed her the favorite among 53 percent of registered Democrats. Biden was a distant second at 15 percent.

Harkin, who praised Clinton during the event Sunday, said she ran a good campaign in 2008 but that Mr. Obama's was just better.

"If Hillary runs, it will be a steep hill for anyone else," he said, noting that other candidates may be making moves to lock in the vice presidential nomination, or testing the waters for a future campaign.

Experienced political hands acknowledge that a competitive field often produces better candidates for the general election. In 2000, for example, when Vice President Al Gore was the heavy favorite, a challenge from liberal former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley in Iowa forced Gore to sharpen his approach. The same was true in 2004, when Howard Dean gathered early steam in Iowa and forced Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the eventual winner, to become more aggressive.

Mr. Obama was able to turn out scores of new caucus goers in 2008 with his anti-war position, soaring oratory and well-organized campaign. Clinton's campaign brought new people into the fold as well, but she never recovered from the blow Mr. Obama dealt with the win by showing she was vulnerable.

On Sunday, Clinton sought to endear herself to the president's supporters in Iowa.

"We went from rivals to partners to friends, and sometimes we would even reminisce about old days," she said.

Iowa Democrats remain open-minded and plan to consider the field as it presents itself, several interviewed said.

"At this point I'm torn between her and Joe Biden," said Selina Delp of Perry, who supported Obama in 2008. "I'm up in the air."

Darcie Hansen of Des Moines supported Biden in 2008, but she expects to support Clinton this time, in part because she appears to be the dominant favorite. She admires Clinton's determination and toughness.

"She's no bull, and she'll tell it like it is," Hansen said. "They aren't going to push her around."

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