Candidates descend on Iowa state fair to make pitch for 2020

Michael Mathes
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Former Vice President Joe Biden snapped selfies, ate ice cream and navigated a crushing media gaggle that followed his every step at the state fair in Des Moines

Former Vice President Joe Biden snapped selfies, ate ice cream and navigated a crushing media gaggle that followed his every step at the state fair in Des Moines (AFP Photo/CHIP SOMODEVILLA)

Des Moines (United States) (AFP) - Deep-fried corn dogs, a blistering summer sun, and discerning American voters greet the presidential candidates at Iowa's state fair, a must stop on the early road to the White House.

Two dozen candidates -- 23 Democrats and a longshot Republican primary challenger to President Donald Trump -- will step onto the political soapbox to make their case to attendees at the fair over its 11-day run.

The historic annual event in the state capital Des Moines is expected to host more than a million people this year, from all corners of this largely rural Midwestern state that votes first in the party presidential nomination battles.

With the fair such a crucial test of political viability in Iowa and beyond, it has become an essential campaign stop for candidates, like current Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden, who dropped in on Thursday to woo voters.

The fair is "pretty much the kickoff for the presidential candidates to get ready for the Iowa caucuses, to get their name out, get with the people," Iowa County supervisor John Gahring told AFP.

"The state fair is where everyone's at."

Candidates relish the opportunity to hone their message to attentive voters, but many also partake in the fair's quirky traditions.

"You kind of have to pay your dues (and) eat the pork chop on the stick," Kerry Waughtal, 50, a technology employee born and raised in Des Moines, said of the presidential candidates.

But aside from sampling culinary delights, glad-handing voters, or admiring the butter cow sculpture, candidates must be themselves in a venue where authenticity rules.

"I don't need Elizabeth Warren to put on a pair of cowboy boots just because she's coming to the fair," Waughtal said of the senator who is currently tied for second in the race -- and will take to the soapbox on Saturday.

"I'd rather just have everybody be their most authentic self because that's what we want to see."

Bekah Hall, a 23-year-old student at Iowa State University, had a sharper message.

"We can spot a faker a mile away," she said.

- 'Like lightning' -

The Iowa State Fair is some 165 years old, but it didn't become a campaign trail fixture until the 1950s when Dwight Eisenhower gave a political speech here.

It can be a make-or-break appearance for many. Republican Mitt Romney made a mess of his 2011 appearance, when he told a heckler during his stump speech that "corporations are people, my friend."

Romney won the nomination the following year, but never shook the image of a wealthy businessman favoring multinationals instead of hardworking Americans, and lost to incumbent Barack Obama.

Trump made a memorable appearance in 2015, when he swooped in by helicopter on the same day rival Hillary Clinton visited.

Biden himself is keenly aware of the fair's potential pitfalls.

It was at a debate here during his 1988 presidential run that he used lines from a British politician without attribution.

The mis-step was eventually picked up in the press and snowballed into a crisis. Within a month Biden's campaign collapsed.

On Thursday he played it safe -- touching on economic issues and calling for Trump's defeat.

He snapped selfies, ate ice cream and navigated a crushing media gaggle that followed his every step.

Conditions were more relaxed for Steve Bullock, the Montana governor and late entrant to the crowded Democratic field who spoke shortly before Biden.

"Iowans take this very very seriously," stressed Bullock, who appeared on stage in cowboy boots and blue jeans -- and noted his ancestors' Iowa roots.

Asked about his favorite fair food, Bullock paused as if pondering a presidential debate question.

"Last year, those deep-fried Oreos didn't suck," he quipped, referring to one of the more popular treats on offer.

Some attendees like Claudia Roven, a retired schoolteacher from Des Moines, were treating the political speeches with deadly seriousness.

Roven, standing under an umbrella as she waited for Biden, said she remains undecided on who she will support, but wants a leader who can defeat Trump and take the country forward.

"I'll know it when I see it, like I knew when I saw Barack Obama," she recalled of the ex-president's 2007 appearance as a candidate.

"It was like lightning, and lightning needs to strike again."