Bik­ers, pork and pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics

First ‘Roast and Ride’ in Iowa gath­ers GOP hope­fuls who talk them­selves up and Democrats down

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY JENNA JOHN­SON AND DAN BALZ jenna.johsnon@wash­post.com dan.balz@wash­post.com

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.”

JABIN BOTS­FORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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.

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