When Republican politicians and officials ditched red meat Saturday at an event at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, Wayne Johnson, a 70-year-old farmer and financial consultant from Forest City, Iowa, had more sober thoughts about the next president. he wants to see.
The violence in America's schools and public places, the ethnicity in politics, the negativity of the country's elected officials – “If a leader can lead us in a positive direction, people will follow,” said Mr. Johnson.
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 exasperatedly about her party's focus on social issues like transgender and LGBTQ treatment. right. “Politicians are taking an ‘awakened' position that has more to do with sex than promoting our country in a positive way.”
The event, called “Roast and Ride” — an annual motorcycle-and-barbecue-boosted political rally sponsored by junior Iowa Republican senator Joni Ernst — laid bare division within the party, with some participants focusing on wallet issues and tones and others looking for a candidate who will face Democrats on social and cultural fronts.
Saturday's gathering featured eight presidential candidates, prominent and unknown, announced and unannounced. 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, former governor of South Carolina 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 tune, waltzing across flag-draped and hay-stacked stages to denounce “deep state” bureaucrats, “wake up” corporations, and liberals who indoctrinate and confuse America's children. Their biggest target, unsurprisingly, is President Biden, for all manner of failures, from Afghanistan and the southern border to transgender athletes competing in women's sports.
For the presidential nominee, winning the Iowa Republican Party — with strong religious leanings and a tradition of political engagement — is a critical first step toward usurping the GOP from the front-runner for the nomination, Donald J. Trump, the only major candidate to not travel on the day. Saturday.
The candidates present tried to differentiate themselves from one another.
The next president, Mr. Pence assured, will “hear from heaven, and he will heal this country.”
Ms Haley agreed, “We have to leave the baggage and negativity behind.”
Mr. DeSantis chose the culture war analogy, evoking Winston Churchill, who once swore to fight Nazi Germany on the beach, on the landing pad, in the fields, and in the streets. Mr. DeSantis vowed Saturday to fight “awake ideology” in Congress halls and boardrooms, saying, “We will never give up.”
Iowa has moved more decisively from a swing state into the deep red than perhaps any other state, voting for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, only to switch decisively to Mr Trump in 2016 and 2020. Mr Trump's eight percentage point victory there in 2020 has nearly matched Mr. Obama 12 years earlier.
But the voters in the audience don't all share the same priorities, interests, or solutions. The Republican presidential beauty pageant eight months before the Iowa caucuses will only attract the most ardent partisans, and candidates understand that they are reaching to the edges of their party, not the center.
Many voters expressed concern about the economy, especially inflation, a topic that most presidential candidates have barely touched on. Ron Greiner, a health insurance salesman from Omaha, was angry that neither candidate had mentioned the Affordable Care Act – once a reliable Republican target of attack – or healthcare at all.
And while Ms. Johnson may have gotten tired of all the talk about transgender issues, others jumped in when Ms. Haley called transgender women competing in women's sports “the biggest women's problem of our time”.
Jackson Cox, a 17-year-old who will be voting for the first time in 2024, drove from Albert Lea, Minn., to hear the candidate he would vote for. What he remembers best is the taxpayer money that he thinks wasted before it reached American troops fighting for freedom in Ukraine – not to mention no US troops fighting in Ukraine. Contrary to the conservative consensus, he argues that the United States should do more, not less, for Ukraine.
Diane Bebb, 66, of New London, Iowa, worries about inflation, fuel and food prices, and “call for help” jobs that seem unfilled.
“We could start producing oil again, to help the economy and bring down prices,” he said, although he wasn't sure how more oil exploration would fill all the jobs.
Her twin sister, Dione Cornelius of Bagley, Iowa, resists the idea of replenishing the workforce with more immigrants.
“They're taking all the benefits, free health care and all that sort of thing,” protested Ms. Cornelius.
Mike Clark, 74, a semi-retired acoustic consultant, worries that “the rule of law is disappearing,” not because of crime on the country's streets but because the out-of-control FBI and Justice Department are after Trump.
“The big push for a one world government, that's what worries me the most,” said Mr. Clark, refers to the general subject of conspiracy theories. He recommended the book “The Creature From Jekyll Island”, which encouraged conspiracy theories about the founding of the Federal Reserve.
Amid all these worries, the one problem that seems to be felt the most is the porous border with Mexico. “What are we going to do with all these people?” asked Karen Clark, 81, of Des Moines.
Beyond that, Iowa conservatives looked torn. They admit that unemployment is so low that jobs in the state are not being filled, but insist that the economy is doomed.
Bill Dunton, 68, said he had come from his home in Toledo, Iowa, to Ms. Ernst's Roast and Ride with Harley-Davidson for six years. His credit card debt was almost paid off, he said relieved. He is especially proud of the Chevy Silverado High Country diesel pickup truck he purchased in 2021, which is “built to pull.”
But, he says with conviction, “the economy has fallen to smithereens”, using an expletive to describe it.
Mr Dunton also spoke about his ordeal with Covid-19, being hospitalized for 28 days on a large tank of supplemental oxygen, which was still tethered up to a month and a half after discharge. However, he added, “I think we are overreacting” to the pandemic.
Responding to the many diseases on the minds of Iowans will present a challenge for presidential candidates. But after the program, Mr. Johnson said he was impressed with his choice, and that he would have time to watch the race unfold.
“It's long term,” he said. “Time has a way of revealing the truth.”