Bikers, pork and presidential politics
First ‘Roast and Ride’ in Iowa gathers GOP hopefuls who talk themselves up and Democrats down
boone, iowa — The day started with the sputtering roar of motorcycles and ended with pork sandwiches and Republican presidential hopefuls taking shots at Hillary Rodham Clinton and President Obama.
Throughout the first “Roast and Ride” here Saturday, Iowa Republicans made this case to anyone who would listen: This state still deeply matters in the nominating process — plus, look how much fun it is to campaign here.
Presiding over the day was Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa, who has been in Washington for only five months but has quickly emerged as a powerful and popular conservative in her party.
She said she hopes the event, which started with a 39-mile motorcycle ride from the edge of Des Moines to a rural event center, will replace the famed Steak Fry that her predecessor, Democrat Tom Harkin, once held. Especially ahead of presidential elections.
“Iowa is always very important,” Ernst told reporters after downing an oversize can of a zerocalorie energy drink and before hopping on her bike. “Iowa is a great cross-section of America.”
For a new event, it sure felt like a time-tested tradition: About 300 bikers showed up, plus hundreds of spectators carrying lawnchairs, dozens of national reporters, and seven announced or likely presidential contenders. The candidates differentiated themselves by talking about their biographies, rather than attacking one another.
But there was no clear winner from the afternoon’s speeches — one more sign of just how fluid the GOP race is here and nationally.
Iowans often roll their eyes at how easily they become stereotyped during the caucuses, but this event played up so many things that East Coasters think of when they think of the Midwest— and that political strategists look for when planning campaign stops. A large red tractor sat near the stage, behind a wall of hay bales and in front of the local fire department’s massive ladder truck that displayed an oversize American flag. Nearly every candidate who took the stage declared “God Bless America” and focused heavily on talking about how the working class has fallen behind under Democratic control— along with criticizing Clinton, the Democratic front-runner.
The day started with breakfast at the Harley-Davidson Big Barn in Des Moines. The ride honored military veterans, and many of the bikers wore leather vests, T-shirts or tattoos featuring patriotic phrases such as “Freedom isn’t free.”
Ernst has been riding bikes most of her life— starting with a dirt bike when she was a farm kid, riding messages from her mom out to her dad in the fields. She now rides a 2009 Harley-Davidson Softail Deluxe, which she wheeled to the front of the pack Saturday morning. Right behind her was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on a rented 2015 Harley-Davidson Road King that he said rode just like the 2003 model he has at home. Alongside them was a black pick up truck with seven photographers and videographers in the bed. Former Texas governor Rick Perry also rode to the event, although on his own route accompanied by his posse of military. Ernst had offered to let her Senate colleague, Marco Rubio of Florida, ride on the back of her hog, but he passed.
Ernst said there are parallels between riding a Harley and governing: “You have to be a leader, and you have to make decisive determinations of what path you want to take. So whatever that road is, you have to follow it.” But when asked if riding a motorcycle should be a prerequisite for running for president, Ernst laughed and said: “Not a qualifier but definitely an interesting factoid.”
Upon arriving at the event site, Ernst quipped, “No bugs in my teeth but plenty on the windshield.”
The venue, the Central Iowa Expo, provided a state-fair feel to the event — much like the Iowa Republican Party’s straw poll, which is expected to happen in August in the same location, although no top-tier candidates have committed to attending. Attendees ate roasted pork sandwiches, potato salad, baked beans and chips, while the Iowa band the Nadas played country music over blaring speakers. Some people played picnic games. Perry and Walker wore black shirts, jeans and caps. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was the only one to wear a sport coat.
The main attraction was speeches from seven declared or likely presidential candidates. Among those missing was former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who was with his family celebrating the 90th birthday of his mother, Barbara. The candidates present all painted a bleak picture of America under Obama’s leadership and, of course, lavished praise on Ernst. “I love a senator who knows how to castrate a pig, ride a hog and cut the pork in Washington, D.C.,” Walker said.
Walker talked up his Midwestern values and the importance of freedom, while pointing out that Harley-Davidson is based in Wisconsin. Perry— who took the stage with a “Howdy, Iowa!” — focused heavily on patriotism and the need for national leadership. Former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson both blasted big government. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina — who dropped joke after joke — called for a better defense of the country. Rubio talked about the American Dream, the new century and defended himself against criticism that he is too young and inexperienced to run. Huckabee talked about an economic vision that is at odds with many in his party.
Collectively, the candidates impressed the activists who sat through the seven speeches, but individually there was no clear favorite.
“I think we have a fantastic field,” said David Freligh of Pella. “I am not yet in favor of anyone in particular, but I am reassured that there’s a good strong field of very qualified people. I feel good about it.”
Sony a Crosby of Ottumwa listed Graham, Rubio and Huckabee among her favorites. “They’re all good, though,” she said. Asked how she would make up her mind, she said: “I don’t know at this point. Keep listening. It’s tough.”
Wisconsin Gov. ScottWalker (T-shirt and cap) greets patrons at the “Roast and Ride” in Iowa. D To view a video, go to wapo.st/roastnride.