Asa Hutchinson Makes Pitch as Bigger Names and Personalities Crowd Him Out

Holding court in a Pizza Ranch restaurant on Tuesday in Newton, Iowa, Asa Hutchinson was trying to keep his long-shot presidential bid aloft as formidable Republican heavyweights continued to dominate the state’s attention.

The would-be caucusgoers listened as he avoided easy answers, carefully sidestepped social issues that he worried were too divisive and made copious references to his previous stints in government — that his stops along the path leading him here had included the House of Representatives, leadership roles in the Homeland Security Department and Drug Enforcement Administration and, most recently, the governor’s mansion in Arkansas.

The problem for Mr. Hutchinson was clear and obvious — only eight Iowa voters were there with him, all tucked into the Pizza Ranch’s “Bunk House,” a party room just off the buffet table.

“Our strategy is to do well in Iowa; we want to be in the top five,” he explained. “We want to be able to go to New Hampshire, which we’ve been campaigning in, and then we’re going to hit the South — South Carolina, Arkansas and the other Southern states. We’re in this for the long haul.”

Mr. Hutchinson’s campaign has been struggling to reach anything like cruising altitude. With the first Republican debate, in Milwaukee, a little more than a month away, he is far from having the 40,000 individual donors required to meet the Republican National Committee’s threshold for a spot on stage. A failure to appear could sink his campaign.

“I’ll be very straightforward with you: I’m not there yet,” the former governor told the radio host Hugh Hewitt last week, adding, “we’re above 5,000, so we’ve got, again, more work to do.”

He has yet to post public fund-raising numbers: “You’ll get the report when it’s filed later this week,” he said on Tuesday. He then acknowledged: “We’d like to have more money.”

But Mr. Hutchinson’s struggles go beyond fund-raising, to the heart of any politics: appeal. Or just who is looking to buy what he’s selling in a race dominated by far bigger names: a former president, a former vice president, the sitting governor of the third largest state in the nation, the only Black Republican in the Senate, and others.

Mr. Hutchinson entered the race relatively early, and with an obvious calling card: his outspoken opposition to former President Donald J. Trump. But that lane is now occupied by a much more brash contender, former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.

Another distinguishing feature of Mr. Hutchinson’s candidacy is his lengthy government résumé. But voters looking for strong credentials seem to be more drawn to Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the United Nations.

Few would question Mr. Hutchinson’s religious faith, but former Vice President Mike Pence has been in the trenches with the G.O.P.’s evangelical voters for years. Nor does Mr. Hutchinson have the personal wealth being brought to the campaign by the North Dakota governor, Doug Burgum, or the smooth salesmanship of the moneyed entrepreneur and author Vivek Ramaswamy.

Instead, Mr. Hutchinson seems to represent a throwback to a different era of Republicanism, embracing the earnest “compassionate conservatism” of former President George W. Bush, remaining unaligned with any particular wing of the party and offering a broad pitch.

He says the economy will be the defining issue of the 2024 race, and though he says that he, too, worries about contested cultural issues like transgender rights, he frets that such issues may be leading the party’s leadership astray.

“Today, regretfully we have leaders that build on the divide, increase the divide, and say, how can we make money off the divide?” he said in Newton.

And he scorns easy answers, even when his audience might look for them. Asked about China and the fentanyl trade, he explained that China sends hard-to-trace precursor chemicals to Mexico, where the drug cartels then manufacture the opioids. China broke off cooperation on the issue when an American politician — and a Democrat at that — former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, visited Taiwan.

“I don’t know if you can make China do anything,” he said.

He castigated one competitor, Mr. Ramaswamy, by name, for meeting slogans like “Drain the swamp!” with easy answers, such as an eight-year term limit for federal employees, which he said would make recruitment and retention of vital employees like border patrol officers next to impossible.

As for the party’s “Build the wall!” mantra relating to all aspects of border security, he noted that on a recent trip to the border he had seen places where smugglers had blasted holes in the wall with acetylene torches and Border Patrol welders had patched them over, marking the repair dates in chalk.

“I’m looking at a wall with all kinds of welding marks on there and all kinds of scribbled dates on there,” he said. “The point being that a wall is not enough.”

But in an era of Republican passion, the broad appeal and conciliatory talk that worked for Mr. Bush nearly a quarter century ago now feels a mile wide and an eighth of an inch deep, always on the verge of drying up completely.

The few voters who came to hear Mr. Hutchinson’s message on Tuesday said they were not giving up on his chances. Deanna Ward, of Ames, a retired secretary at Iowa State University, said at a Tuesday morning meet-and-greet in Nevada, Iowa, that she liked Mr. Hutchinson’s national security experience and handle on policy.

“He understands the border crisis, he understands diplomacy,” she said.

Steve and Anna Wittmuss drove from their home in West Des Moines, about an hour away, to catch Mr. Hutchinson in Newton. Mr. Wittmuss leans Republican, he said; Ms. Wittmuss is a Democrat. Both are eager for an alternative to the front-runner in the Republican race, Mr. Trump.

Mr. Christie’s stalwart criticism of Mr. Trump has its appeal, said Mr. Wittmuss, who fondly recalled listening to Mr. Christie in 2016, as he recited lengthy and nuanced answers to difficult political questions.

“Then he went back to New Jersey and did some things so stupid you just couldn’t believe it,” he said, pointing to the scandal that became known as Bridgegate as well as Mr. Christie’s infamous 2017 trip to a beach that had been closed because of a government shutdown.

For months, Mr. Hutchinson has said that he has time to gain altitude, but even he spoke with a tone of desperation on Tuesday, noting that the Iowa caucuses were recently scheduled for an early date, Jan. 15, with the first debate just over the horizon.

In Nevada, Iowa, Luke Spence, a pilot for United Airlines, hosted Mr. Hutchinson and estimated that he had staged around 50 “Coffee With the Candidate” events since he had started them as a personal passion project in 2019, during the run-up to the 2020 Iowa caucuses. On Tuesday morning, he said, he had gathered his smallest crowd ever. Just six Iowans had climbed the stairs, above Farm Grounds Coffee Shop on the town square, to hear Mr. Hutchinson.

“Well, it’s a Tuesday morning,” Sue Vande Kamp of Nevada said afterward, as she praised Mr. Hutchinson’s ability and willingness to listen to voter concerns.

Mr. Hutchinson said he was undeterred by such showings. He said he would not be lured into setting the terms of his withdrawal, if, say, he misses the debate in August, or the later debates, or if he fails to secure a top finish in the caucuses in January.

“The only standard I set for myself is, we all should be self-evaluating as time goes on,” he said. “You know, I don’t expect 12 to be in the race when you get into Super Tuesday.”

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