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GOP Suitors Woo Iowa With Bikes, Barbeque And Barnstorming

A herd of Republican presidential candidates spent some time in Iowa farm country this weekend. They were there for a fundraiser called Roast and Ride, a motorcycle ride and barbecue organized by Republican Sen. Joni Ernst.

Ernst, a political newcomer, is making herself a force in presidential politics.

On Saturday morning, Ernst, decked out in a leather biker vest and drinking a Monster Energy drink, was greeting hundreds of bikers in the parking lot of a Harley Davidson dealer in Des Moines. She joked with the press about Florida senator and presidential candidate Marco Rubio turning her down for a ride on the back of her motorcycle.

Only two of the GOP presidential hopefuls rode motorcycles. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry led his own motorcade, from Perry — yes, Perry — Iowa.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker rode with Ernst. He hasn't officially announced he's running for president, but has been spending a lot of time in Iowa.

"When Joni told me in January she was going to do this I thought, well heck, that's easy," Walker said. "I'll do that in a heartbeat, right?"

After finishing the 38-mile ride to the small town of Boone, it was time for the roast. Iowa resident Connie Rueter waited in line for Barbeque sandwiches, baked beans and potato salad.

Iowans listen to prospective and declared GOP presidential candidates in Boone, Iowa during Sen. Joni Ernst's Roast and Ride.
Clay Masters / Iowa Public Radio
Iowa Public Radio
Iowans listen to prospective and declared GOP presidential candidates in Boone, Iowa during Sen. Joni Ernst's Roast and Ride.

"It was amazing to see that many consecutive bikes and people along the way with their flags waving," Reuter said. "It just gave me a good spirit of, you know, USA and freedom, and it was just really great."

Swap the pork for steak and Republicans for Democrats and you could be at Tom Harkin's Steak Fry. Ernst replaced Harkin in the Senate this year, but she's copying his playbook, with a fundraiser designed to draw presidential candidates.

Former state GOP chair Matt Strawn said Ernst is showing the candidates a slice of Iowa.

"We're not in a ballroom with $100/plate dinners," Strawn said. I'm in my boots and jeans as we're talking here. My kids are here. We're eating barbecue. We're having fun."

The event included a full buffet of Republican candidates to sample: former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina — and, of course, a lot of speeches.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham earned some groans and laughter with this one: "Hillary Clinton couldn't be here today — because there's a crowd that might ask her a question."

As the Roast and Ride drew to a close, Ernst appeared to relish her roles as host and a new political force from an important state.

"Travel safely as you're heading home this afternoon," she told the crowd. "And make sure, as these candidates are coming back through, you're giving them a very warm Iowa welcome."

Copyright 2015 Iowa Public Radio

Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter. He was part of a team of member station political reporters who covered the 2016 presidential race for NPR. He also covers environmental issues.