As GOP politicians and officials dished out the red meat Saturday at an event at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, Wayne Johnson, a 70-year-old farmer and financial consultant from Forrest City, Iowa, had some quieter thoughts about the next president he’d like to see. .
The violence in America’s schools and public places, the tribalism in politics, the negativity of the nation’s elected officials — “If a leader can lead us in a positive direction, people will follow,” Mr. Johnson said.
His wife, Gloria, intervened. “I really don’t care about people’s sexual habits and I don’t want to hear about it all the time,” she said with irritation about her party’s focus on social issues such as transgender and LGBTQ rights. “Politicians are taking positions on ‘woke’ that have more to do with sex than promoting our country in a positive way.”
The event, dubbed the “Roast and Ride” — an annual political rally filled with motorcycles and barbecue sponsored by Iowa’s junior Republican Sen. Joni Ernst — laid bare party divisions, with some attendees focusing on pocketbook and tone issues and others they were looking for a candidate who would stand up to the Democrats on the social and cultural front.
Saturday’s gathering featured eight presidential candidates, prominent and unknown, declared and undeclared. Ron DeSantis, Governor of Florida; Mike Pence, the former vice president who will formally announce his candidacy on Wednesday; Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina; and Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and UN ambassador, were there, along with hundreds of Iowa Republicans who will cast the first ballots of the Republican nomination season in February.
Politicians had their pitches, dancing across a flag-draped, hay-baled stage to oppose the “deep state” bureaucrats, the “woke” corporations, and the liberals indoctrinating and confusing America’s children. Their biggest target, unsurprisingly, has been President Biden, for all sorts of failures, from Afghanistan and the southern border to transgender athletes competing in women’s sports.
For the presidential hopefuls, winning over Iowa Republicans — with their strong religious bent and tradition of political engagement — is the imperative first step toward wresting the GOP from the front-runner for the nomination, Donald J. Trump, the only major candidate who succeeded, did not travel on Saturday.
The candidates present tried to distinguish themselves from each other.
The next president, Mr. Pence assured, “will hear from heaven and heal this earth.”
Ms Haley agreed: “We need to put the baggage and negativity behind us.”
Mr. DeSantis chose a culture war analogy, recalling Winston Churchill, who once vowed to fight Nazi Germany on the beaches, on the airstrips, in the fields and in the streets. Mr. DeSantis vowed on Saturday to fight the “woke ideology” in the halls of Congress and in the boardrooms, saying: “We will never surrender.”
Iowa moved more decisively from swing state to deep red than perhaps any other state, voting for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, only to swing hard for Mr. Trump in 2016 and 2020 d. Mr. Trump’s eight-percentage-point victory there in 2020 nearly equaled Obama’s nine-point margin 12 years ago.
But the voters in the audience did not all have the same priorities, interests or decisions. The Republican presidential beauty pageant eight months before the Iowa caucuses will attract only the most ardent supporters, and candidates understand they are reaching the edges of their party, not the center.
Many voters expressed concern about the economy, especially inflation, a topic that most of the presidential candidates barely touched on. Ron Greiner, a health insurance salesman from Omaha, was incensed that none of the candidates mentioned the Affordable Care Act — once a reliable target of Republican attacks — or health care in general.
And while Ms Johnson may be tired of all the talk about transgender issues, others jumped to their feet when Ms Haley called transgender women competing in women’s sports “the biggest women’s issue of our time”.
Jackson Cox, a 17-year-old who will vote for the first time in 2024, drove from Albert Lea, Minn., to hear the candidates he will choose from. Most important to him are taxpayer dollars, which he says are being wasted before they reach the American troops fighting for freedom in Ukraine — never mind that no American troops are fighting in Ukraine. Contrary to the conservative consensus, he argued that the United States should do more, not less, for Ukraine.
Diane Bebb, 66, of New London, Iowa, worries about inflation, gas and food prices and “help-wanted signs” for jobs that can’t seem to be filled.
“We can start producing oil again to help the economy and lower prices,” she said, though she wasn’t sure how more oil exploration would fill all those jobs.
Her twin sister Diona Cornelius of Bagley, Iowa, stepped in to reject the idea of filling the workforce with more immigrants.
“They’re taking all the benefits, free health care and stuff like that,” Mrs. Cornelius protested.
Mike Clark, 74, a semi-retired acoustics consultant, worries that “the rule of law is disappearing,” not so much because of crime on the nation’s streets, but because of an out-of-control FBI and Justice Department pursuing Mr. Trump.
“A lot of pressure for a one-world government, that’s what worries me the most,” Mr Clarke said, referring to a common theme of conspiracy theories. He recommended the book The Creature From Jekyll Island, which pushed conspiracy theories about the founding of the Federal Reserve.
Amid this cornucopia of concerns, the one issue that seemed most widely felt was the porous border with Mexico. “What are we going to do with all these people?” asked Karen Clark, 81, of Des Moines.
Also, Iowa conservatives seemed torn. They acknowledged that unemployment was so low that jobs in the state were not being filled, but they argued that the economy was a wreck.
Bill Dunton, 68, said he has been coming from his home in Toledo, Iowa, to Mrs. Ernst’s Roast and Ride on his Harley-Davidson for six years. His credit card debt is almost paid off, he said with relief. He was especially proud of the Chevy Silverado High Country diesel pickup he bought in 2021, which “was made to tow.”
But, he said with conviction, “the economy fell apart,” using an expletive to describe it.
Mr Dunton also spoke about his ordeal with Covid-19, being hospitalized for 28 days with huge tanks of supplemental oxygen, which he was still attached to a month and a half after being discharged. Still, he added, “I think we’ve gone too far” with the pandemic.
Addressing the many ills on the minds of Iowans will present a challenge for the presidential candidates. But after the program, Mr Johnson said he was impressed with his selection and would have time to watch the race unfold.
“This is a long-term plan,” he noted. “Time has a way of revealing the truth.”