Their messages echoed nearly identical themes: Unity, patriotism and American exceptionalism. Their objective was uniform: Defeating President Joe Biden and America's "woke" left.
Eight of the Republican Party's top presidential candidates stayed on message and avoided attacking each other Saturday at U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst's annual "Roast and Ride" event at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines.
Ernst's motorcycle ride and subsequent circuit of presidential speeches marked a key "cattle call" for Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucus season, featuring a growing Republican field that included Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and other candidates courting support in the Hawkeye State.
"It's time to kick Joe Biden out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," Ernst, who donned a leather Harley-Davidson vest on the ride, shouted in her introductory remarks.
After she rallied the crowd around conservative causes and opposition to the president, candidates began to lobby themselves to Iowans as the leader of that opposition.
Former President Donald Trump, who remains the front-runner, was the only major candidate not present, but his rivals for the GOP nomination declined to take the opportunity to directly attack him — or even mention his name.
Instead, they reserved their rhetorical punches for Biden, the federal government and left-leaning policies they disdainfully dismissed as "wokeism."
Ernst praised the range of messages and issues from the field in comments to reporters after the event, saying, "I think there are a lot of folks that want to move forward." She, too, stayed on message when asked about balancing attitudes and factions within the GOP.
"I know that President Trump has a great base," Ernst said. "It is strong, but at the same time, people don't want to hear about what has happened in the past because we've had two years of a Biden administration that is destroying our nation."
GOP presidential candidates pitch themselves as the future in Iowa, with Donald Trump absent
Though Trump wasn't present — he has often disdained group events in favor of holding his own rallies — he still loomed large at the Roast and Ride. Volunteers and staff from the campaign roamed the event at the Animal Learning Center, planting Trump signs, donning T-shirts and manning a booth alongside the rest of the campaigns.
Attempting to carve a path through the first caucus state and chip away at Trump's support, his Republican challengers used their time to familiarize themselves with voters and outline their priorities. They talked about their upbringings, their parents, the value of hard work and how America is a country of opportunity, not racism.
Just before riders arrived at the fairgrounds Saturday, DeSantis attracted a mob of supporters and press next to the bus owned by Never Back Down, the super PAC backing him. Back in Iowa after a trip through the state earlier this week, he shook hands and handed out signatures — including one on a letter a woman said she wrote him a year ago, addressed to "the future president of the United States."
DeSantis continued to embrace the retail politics of Iowa, trying cotton candy-flavored ice cream while his wife, Casey, and his kids played with puppies. He received a standing ovation before his remarks, in which he touted his conservative record in Florida.
"I don't just make idle promises that when I get into office I forget," DeSantis said. "I will lean into all the issues that matter."
Pence, who is expected to formally enter the race next week in Iowa, was the sole candidate to join Ernst on the ride from Big Barn Harley-Davidson. He donned his own leather vest, featuring a patch from his home state of Indiana.
The former vice president, asked early in the day what his lane in the race would be, responded with a joke: "I'm more worried about the lane we're going to be staying in today." And he teased his coming campaign announcement, declaring, "I'm going to do it here in Iowa."
Haley, a former South Carolina governor, promised a consistent presence in Iowa, then took a subtle poke at Trump's usual style of campaigning.
"I'm not going to do a rally and leave you," Haley said. (Trump visited Iowa earlier this week for a series of smaller campaign stops.)
Though direct criticisms of the front-runner were absent from their public remarks, several candidates dinged Trump in interviews with the Register for failing to attend the event, as well as not being the best choice for Republicans.
Haley called Trump's absence a "mistake," and candidate and conservative commentator Larry Elder said he didn't believe Trump could win in the general election.
"The question is: Can he win against Biden in a rematch in November 2024?" Elder said. "And if I thought the answer was a slam dunk, I wouldn’t be here.”
And candidate and Michigan businessman Perry Johnson acknowledged the rest of the field was playing catch-up with Trump, "now over 50%" in some polling.
"So I understand why he's not here," Johnson said. "I'm not saying he shouldn't be here. But I do get it.”
Trump was extended an invitation to the event, Ernst said, "a couple months ago," when they last spoke.
"He has other considerations to think about, whether he does the multi-candidate events or not," Ernst said. "We made that offer, and everyone is welcome here."
Some candidates focus on their background, hoping for name recognition and more donors
Several of the presidential hopefuls used their time on stage to outline their personal identity and top issues.
Scott, of South Carolina, told the crowd that "I scare the dickens out of the radical left and Joe Biden," continuing to strike a chord of optimism while decrying "victim" attitudes and beliefs of systemic racism.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has asked Iowans to donate to his campaign in order to qualify for the Republican National Committee's first debate, pitched himself as a down-to-earth choice who can relate to the state's residents.
"After a little visit, they come to me and they say, ‘You know, you seem like a normal person,’" Hutchinson said. "Is that not just the greatest compliment you can have?"
And entrepreneur and author Vivek Ramaswamy made a pitch to millennials, as the first one to run for president as a Republican.
"Speaking as a member of my generation, we're hungry for purpose and meaning and identity," Ramaswamy said.
Johnson and Elder, who are struggling to register in most national polling, both bemoaned the newly unveiled requirements to qualify for the debate in Milwaukee later this summer, which include having 40,000 donors. Elder called the threshold "onerous," but said he would "play by the rules"; Johnson said it was "kind of ridiculous."
Ramaswamy and Haley told the Register their campaigns had already met the requirements to qualify for the debate.
Iowans, hearing from nearly the whole GOP field, weigh their options
The Roast and Ride offered the opportunity for potential caucusgoers to hear from nearly the entire presidential field at once.
A number of potential voters interviewed by the Register on Saturday were still exploring their options, interested in several candidates but not yet committing with the caucuses still months away.
Mari Andres of Des Moines said she wanted to see "new blood" in the White House.
"I want to see someone younger," Andres said.
She said that she's been impressed with DeSantis' leadership in Florida, including parental rights at school and fighting against "woke" culture. And she said she wants to see a Republican president win again.
Pat and Lori McCarville, both self-employed Fort Dodge residents, are independents who usually lean Republican. They said DeSantis and Scott were at the top of their lists, believing they could lead a nation with "too much division" and saying they were impressed with their backgrounds.
"I voted for Trump because of his policies," Pat McCarville said, but that was no longer enough to retain his support. "He is not a nice man."
For Karen Fesler of Coralville, it's between Trump and DeSantis, though she's still "studying" the Florida governor. It's "putting a puzzle together," she said, and "DeSantis is missing a few pieces."
While she respects the other GOP candidates, Fesler says she doesn't foresee other candidates rising to the top. It comes down to "name recognition," she said.
Despite their candidate not being present, some Iowans who remain loyal to Trump also attended Saturday.
"The top of my list and the only thing on my list is Trump," said Lori Gorman, a 73-year-old retiree from Altoona.
Gorman has attended four Trump rallies, she said, and has a wall dedicated to the businessman-turned-president in her home, complete with his books.
"Trump had four years, and he's been through just about every damn thing they could put him through and he's survived it," she said.
Katie Akin, Brianne Pfannenstiel and Stephen Gruber-Miller contributed reporting.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Republican presidential hopefuls attack Biden, not Trump at Iowa event