Tuesday, July 16, 2024

GOP hopefuls, with Trump notably absent, mingle at Iowa event

GOP hopefuls, with Trump notably absent, mingle at Iowa event

DES MOINES, Iowa — Republican presidential hopefuls kicked off the summer months of campaigning at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on Saturday, offering alternative pitches for their candidacies as they declined to mention Donald Trump, their party’s current polling leader, by name.

Eight candidates or potential candidates, ranging from well-known political figures like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to relatively unknown GOP businessman Perry Johnson, attended Republican Sen. Joni Ernst’s annual “Roast and Ride” event, delivering mini-stump speeches to win over their party’s first-in-nation caucus-goers.

For the “ride” portion of the event, former vice president Mike Pence was the only presidential hopeful who rode on a motorcycle alongside Ernst and hundreds of riders gathered to raise money for the Freedom Foundation of Cedar Rapids, a veterans charity. Pence was decked out in a black leather vest that included an American flag and his last name sewn in.

“The road to 2024, it runs through Iowa and, folks, it runs through the Roast and Ride,” Ernst declared before introducing the individual candidates for their stump speeches.

The notable absence of Trump to some extent encapsulated the race more broadly. While Ernst invited Trump, the former president and current GOP front-runner has had little appetite for sharing the spotlight with his primary rivals. (He has also indicated that he may not participate in the early GOP debates.) A Trump spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

When asked about Trump opting out, DeSantis told reporters: “I’m just happy to be here. I love the people here. I think this is a great event.”

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Some Republican voters said they weren’t surprised that Trump didn’t attend.

“He’s not going to share the stage with everybody,” said Amy Wyss, 54. “I don’t see this as his kind of event.”

The candidate speeches relayed shorter versions of their campaign speeches and covered several issues that resonate with GOP primary voters, including immigration at the southern border, barring transgender athletes from women’s sports and attacking those they frame as the “radical left.” Though the official and soon-to-be-official candidates didn’t mention Trump by name, allusions to him and his personality were clear.

Nikki Haley, former U.N. ambassador under Trump, told attendees “it’s time for a new generational leader” and warned: “don’t complain about what you get in a general if you don’t play in this caucus.”

Pence stressed that as voters, “we have to resist the politics of personality,” adding that the “siren song of populism unmoored the timeless conservative principles.” DeSantis reiterated that Republicans need to “dispense with the culture of losing that has beset the Republican Party in recent years.”

In comments to reporters, Ernst, a two-term senator who has raised her profile in the party in recent years, said she did not find it odd that the candidates neglected to mention Trump.

“Obviously they’re vying for the position to be the candidate that comes up in the general election in 2024,” Ernst said. “They don’t want to give him … the opportunity here when he wasn’t here to present the case himself. So they are making the case for themselves.”

GOP presidential candidates are already heavily investing their time in Iowa, home to the first-in-nation caucus. Both Trump and DeSantis made campaign swings here this week, while Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) held a town hall on Friday in Council Bluffs. And in a sign of how central Iowa will be to his presidential bid, Pence is set to officially announce his White House run in Des Moines next week.

A victory in Iowa is no guarantee for Trump, who lost the state to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) in the 2016 cycle but went on to win the nomination and the presidency. And although Iowa isn’t necessarily indicative of who the eventual Republican nominee will be next year, a win in this state by someone other than Trump would allow that candidate to make the case for being the most viable alternative.

Former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, conservative radio host Larry Elder and tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy also spoke to the packed room of several hundred voters.

Many of the Iowans at the event said they are still undecided, as the candidates engaged in traditional retail politics — shaking hands, taking selfies, and stopping for ice cream.

“I think we’re still shopping around for candidates,” said Bill Hobson, an attendee from Marshalltown. Holding up a pile of fliers that volunteers had distributed touting various candidates, he said “we’ve got three on the shortlist, there’s Tim, Nikki, and Ron.”

Several Trump supporters said they were open to hearing from others.

“I was a big Trump supporter and I still may be, but I really wanted to hear what everybody else said. Anybody here is better than what we have, that’s my opinion,” said Waukee resident Virginia Stone, clad in an American flag shirt and bejeweled flag cap.

Mike Vestle, a retiree from Marion, said he was leaning toward Haley, but he was blunt in describing his plan to caucus for whoever he believes can best challenge Trump among the crowded field: “Ultimately I will support whoever is ahead in the polls on the night before the caucuses who is not named Trump.”

Several attendees wore hats sporting Trump’s signature Make America Great Again motto, while volunteers sported Trump shirts while distributing campaign materials for him. Still, some voters said they wish he had made an appearance.

“I was a Trump person but I just don’t like all the baggage that happens with Trump, all the negativity and all that,” said Wayne Rude, 70. “He missed a big chance, he screwed up.”

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