INDIANOLA, Iowa -- Six of the nine Democratic presidential candidates came to Sen. Tom Harkin's (D-Iowa) annual steak fry here on Saturday and waited in the rain for the man formerly known as the POTUS to appear. It was as though they were waiting for a beloved preacher to perform a laying-on of hands. But when Bill Clinton did arrive, his attendance proved to be something of a double-edged sword: While he drew a sizable contingent of fans, his presence also made it impossible to ignore the still-large gap between him and his would-be heirs.

Nearly 5,000 Democratic faithful turned out despite the persistent drizzle and the sodden grounds. By the time the event started, it was impossible to enter the fields without negotiating long stretches of mud. Volunteers scrambled to pour gravel into the mire to improve traction. Ink ran on the sign outside the press tent. A pair of Dean supporters, Jeffrey Goetz and Sally Troxell of Des Moines, kept their white dog -- named after the Clintons' Buddy -- clean by pushing him around in a stroller labeled "Canine Caucus Corps." Campaign signs everywhere were drenched, and you could see which candidates had the most sturdy posters (hint: it wasn't Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich). The longer the event went on, the more it seemed like a Clinton campaign rally. Three elderly women wore bright white jackets with Clinton's name and the words "Victory" and "1992" on the back, and there was a red slew of "Welcome Back Bill" posters bobbing among the assorted umbrellas. On the other side, the posters read, "We Miss You."

That certainly captured the prevailing sentiment, and the candidates made a point of agreeing. It may be cosmically unfair to compare a man with nothing to lose to the nine current presidential hopefuls, but the comparison is unavoidable when he's actually sharing the stage with them. And every candidate acknowledged that in some way: Each of the six who went to the podium -- Missouri Rep. Gephardt made only a brief cameo at the event; the Rev. Al Sharpton and Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman were absent altogether -- invoked Clinton's name as though it would bring good karma. They either waxed nostalgic about the Clinton years or explained how their administrations would restore Clinton-era prosperity. But the ex-president, whose speech came last and ran predictably long, looked looser and sounded notably more jovial than any of the candidates.

Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.) probably pulled off the best Clinton imitations. Kerry, dressed like Clinton in blue jeans and standing nearly as tall as the ex-president, appeared relaxed and drew considerable laughs. He called for George W. Bush to be "laid off" and talked about the importance of improving health insurance (which proved to be a consistent crowd pleaser throughout the event). Right on Kerry's heels, Edwards used a similar "lay off Bush" line and declared that he was "tired of Democrats walking away from Bill Clinton and Al Gore" and their economic record. He looked youthful and sounded particularly fiery and southern as he denounced the Bush administration's assault on civil rights. "You could give this speech," he told his supporters when they roared responses to his questions.

Former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.) was another standout: His orange-bedecked supporters had been bused in from several surrounding states and made for the most reliably fanatical of the candidates' cheering sections. (Dean also appeared to win the morning's so-called sign war, the two-hour race to deluge the grounds with campaign paraphernalia.) True to form, he was rhetorically rawer than the others, speaking simply and bluntly, even harshly. Dean wasn't as funny as either Kerry or Edwards, but he won plaudits for extended riffs on Iraq ("Lies!" the Dean machine yelled on cue) and health insurance, and even prompted some applause from fellow candidates for pointing out that no Republican has balanced the budget in decades.

When Clinton took the podium, the loudspeakers blared his old theme music -- "Don't . . . stop . . . thinkin' about tomorrow" -- and you could practically cut the nostalgia with a knife. There were differences between then and now, of course, but they were mostly happy ones, like Clinton looking far fitter than in his White House days (He is reportedly on the South Beach Diet, and if so, we should all be on it.)

Wearing a blue shirt and jeans and looking well rested, he dug his hands into his pockets and mouthed pleasantries to members of the crowd as host Harkin introduced him. Clinton began by thanking Harkin and noting that a certain junior senator from New York was doing pretty well, too; he then bemoaned the fate of his as-yet-unfinished book compared to hers. (Sure enough, Carey Hamilton of Des Moines had just purchased Living History that morning and was trying to get each candidate and Clinton to sign it; Edwards and Gephardt, at least, did.) But though he drew laughs with virtually every sentence, Clinton was serious, too, repeatedly saying, "You're laughing, but people don't know," as he lamented the Bush administration's sins. Praising what he called the strongest field of Democratic presidential candidates in years, Clinton also admonished the crowd to "fall in line" behind the eventual nominee. He was very nearly Bush-like about staying on message: The ex-president managed to convey a persistent theme, discussing how his own tax cut (on his speaking-fee-fattened income) comes at the expense of jobs, after-school programs and higher-education loans.

He bid the crowd goodbye with a jaunty salute and thumbs-up, and then worked his way around the stage as though he'd never stopped shaking hands and kissing babies. "I'd totally vote for him," said Kucinich supporter, recent California transplant and University of Iowa graduate student Alysha Meyers.

But what of Clinton's effect on the candidates themselves? In the end, his advice to the crowd might as well have been directed at this election's Democratic hopefuls: Go out and tell people what the Bush administration is doing in the "nicest, funniest way you can," he said. In other words, talk like Bill.

V.V. Ganeshananthan is a graduate student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a freelance journalist based in Iowa City.