There were hay bales and Harley-Davidsons. There was sliced pork and campaign paraphernalia. There were earnest speeches about defeating Democrats winning back the White House. But at the centre of it all was a Donald Trump-shaped hole.
The Republican presidential primary for 2024 got under way in earnest on Saturday when eight contenders – minus Trump – took part in Iowa senator Joni Ernst’s “Roast and Ride”, a combination of barbecue-rally and motorcycle ride.
The annual event is a slice of pure Americana. When a young pastor offered a prayer from the back of a pickup truck outside a big yellow barn owned by Harley-Davidson, bikers removed their caps, placed them over their hearts and bowed their heads. The convoy rode in staggered formation past churches, suburban houses with clipped lawns, shopping malls and rolling farmland to the Iowa state fairgrounds.
Mike Pence, set to make his entry into the primary official next week, was the only White House hopeful to actually take part in the charity parade. The former vice-president, who turns 64 next week, rode a cobalt blue bike and wore jeans, boots, a white helmet and a black leather vest with patches that said “Indiana”, “Pence”, “rolling thunder” and messages supportive of the military.
Pence was among the Republican aspirants who, speaking in front of bales of hay and an outline of the Iowa map, delivered speeches of about 10 minutes each inside a wooden-roofed building where about a thousand voters ate lunch on green table cloths. But none mentioned Trump by name, giving the impression of a party in denial.
The two-hour “cattle call” also made tangible a dilemma facing Republicans as a growing field threatens to split opposition to Trump, allowing his hard base of support to prevail as it did in the 2016 primary.
“I am concerned about that because my household is also split: I’m married to a Trump supporter, so I know about this core support that Trump has,” said Marie Andries, 74. “Everybody has a right to run for president but it kind of hurts the primary process.”
Andries is supporting Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, because of his promotion of parents’ rights. “Trump did a good job while he was in office but I just want younger, newer blood in the White House,” she added. “I would vote for DeSantis, not Trump this time.”
DeSantis was joined at the event by his wife, Casey, who wore a black leather jacket in 86-degree weather with the words “Where Woke Goes to Die”, an outline of Florida and image of an alligator on the back. She showed their three young children the inside of a tractor cabin.
The governor himself – rounding off his first week as an official candidate after a blitz of three early-voting states – conversed with voters, shook hands, gave out autographs and signed the Bible of a man who thanked DeSantis for “standing up to Disney”. He posed for a photo with another man wearing a cap that said “Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa” – lines from the romantic baseball film Field of Dreams.
Wearing a checked shirt and jeans, DeSantis – second to Trump in the polls – was the last and perhaps most energetic speaker at the rally and provoked the most enthusiastic response. He championed his response to the coronavirus pandemic – “We chose freedom over Faucism” – and took an indirect swipe at Trump by insisting: “Leadership is not about entertainment … Leadership is ultimately about results and that’s what we do in the state of Florida.”
He was defiant in defending his battle with Disney over Florida’s law restricting discussion of gender and sexuality in schools. “I stand up for the people I represent: I don’t subcontract out my leadership with woke corporations,” he said to whoops and applause.
DeSantis noted that some Republicans have criticised his stance. “But I can tell you straight up, we stand for the protection of our children. We will do battle against anybody that seeks to rob them of their innocence and, on those principles, I will not compromise. Here I stand.”
Not for the first time, the former congressman used Churchillian language in vowing to fight progressive policies that have gone too far: “The woke mind virus represents a war on the truth so we will wage a war on the world. We will fight the woke in education. We will fight the woke in the corporations. We will fight the woke in the halls of Congress. We will never, ever surrender to the woke mob. We will make woke ideology – leave it to the dustbin of history. It’s gone.”
Such remarks were well received by the crowd but DeSantis did not dominate as had seemed possible six months ago. Also speaking at the event were former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, Michigan businessman Perry Johnson, author Vivek Ramaswamy and conservative talk radio host Larry Elder.
Yet Trump was the love that dare not speak its name as all the candidates all danced around mentions of the former president. Haley repeated a version of a line she has been using as a candidate that seems to allude to the 76-year-old Trump and his countless controversies: “It’s time for a new generation leader. We’ve got to leave the baggage of the negativity behind.”
The candidates focused on similar conservative themes: lambasting Joe Biden, assailing “woke” ideology, promising tough policies on China and the US-Mexico border and restrictions on abortion and gender-affirming policies. Scott, who is African American, stared out at a sea of white faces and quipped: “I’m hard to miss sometimes.”
But the event seldom generated the raucous fireworks of a Trump campaign rally.
Jerry Kennon, 70, who has been to the “Roast and Ride” every year for eight years, said: “I thought they were great. At the risk of sounding tough, Pence came away light compared to the others. Nikki Haley: great. DeSantis closed it out very well. The other guys, some I had never heard of. They showed well. I’m not sure they’ll have a chance, but I’m pretty impressed with Nikki Haley and DeSantis.”
Kennon, a retired pharmaceutical industry business manager wearing a yellow Iowa football T-shirt, added: “I have a fear that Trump’s only role in this election is going to be a spoiler, that he may ruin it for the Republicans. I kind of wish he would back out and just leave it alone but he won’t.”
Support at the event did appear fragmented. Marie Kline, 71, wearing a “DeSantis” sticker, said: “I love DeSantis because he is a gentleman. He’s tough. The way he handled Covid in Florida. I like the fact he’s fighting woke in schools. It’s an option if you want it but not in schools. And I also admire his past military experience, I admire the way he’s taking on Disney.”
She added: “Trump was a good president but I don’t like him as a man. That makes it hard for me to vote for someone that I really don’t like.”
Others were in favour of Haley. Jeff Bruns, 58, who works in IT, said: “Her common-sense meter far outweighs her BS meter. She’s got the right message.” Bruns dismissed DeSantis as a “blowhard”.
Analysts have warned that, just as in 2016, a spread of votes among various candidates could allow Trump to win a plurality in early voting states and secure the nomination.
In an interview with the Guardian, Ramaswamy denied this would be a problem. He said: “I don’t think that there’s some sort of political science engineering to be done. The question is who has the right vision for the country? What are we running to? I’m delivering that, and I think more competition is good. I’m in favour of that. I think it strengthens us, actually. So I don’t fear the competition. I embrace it because that makes us as a party and as a movement and as a country that much stronger.”
Yet even at an event where Trump did not appear, his supporters were in evidence, some wearing caps and T-shirts bearing his name. Leonard Wallace, 76, a retired radio and TV engineer, said: “Everything that he promised to do, he did, and he knows what the swamp is like and they’re really after him. He’s fighting the swamp plus getting everything done. He has the guts and the fortitude to do it.”
When the rally was over, DeSantis and other candidates worked the room. But a woman stood at the exit handing out blue bumper stickers that said “Trump: Make America great again! 2024” to people as they left. She remarked with some surprise: “Nine out of 10 people are taking them!”
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