BOONE, Iowa (AP) – The attack ads and debates will come later. On Saturday, several Republican presidential contenders fought for an edge among motorcycles, puppies, war heroes and roasted pork, having swapped dark suits for blue jeans to meet Iowans eight months before they cast the first votes of the 2016 presidential primary.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry cruised to an afternoon presidential forum on Harley-Davidson motorcycles, leading separate rides of hundreds – many military veterans among them – as their Republican competitors chatted up would-be supporters over barbecue and potato salad.
“What a great day this morning was – out there on a Harley-Davidson, riding by the heartland of America,” Perry said. “That is what America’s all about. Living freedom, riding free.”
Perry’s ride raised money for the Puppy Jake Foundation, an Iowa-based group that trains service dogs for wounded veterans.
Walker, wearing a black “Born to Ride” T-shirt, said, “You’ve got to have fun on campaigns – or would-be campaigns – along the way.”
Beyond fun, candidates gained a valuable and unscripted opportunity to connect with voters at an event dubbed a “roast and ride” by its host, freshman Republican Sen. Joni Ernst. It served as a prime political gathering with the state’s straw poll losing its relevance and its annual steak fry for Democrats ended.
“I think in Iowa it is extremely important to do this,” said Ernst on retail politicking. “Iowans want to see their candidates, they want to reach out and shake their hand, they want to ask that question face to face.”
Indeed, before giving brief speeches from a stage flanked by bales of hay, the Republicans contenders crisscrossed the sprawling outdoor venue trailed by packs of curious voters. They sliced meat, posed for pictures and made small talk with anyone who would listen.
Just two months before the first nationally televised debate, Walker is expected to announce his candidacy in the coming weeks. Perry launched his presidential bid on Thursday. The Saturday attendees included recently declared candidates Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former tech executive Carly Fiorina.
Offering the nation’s first voting contest, Iowa becomes a critical state for candidates eager to stand out in a pack of more than a dozen prospective candidates.
“I love ribs,” a smiling Walker said as he sliced into a freshly cooked rack of baby back ribs, noting that he proposed to his wife at a barbecue restaurant.
Posing for pictures with voters near the barbecue tents, Graham said that this kind of campaigning “is the difference between winning and losing.”
“If you don’t do this you’re going to lose,” he said. “God bless the Iowa caucuses.”
There was virtually no infighting among the Republican, although a few jabbed Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has had few unscripted moments in her 2016 campaign so far.
Fiorina questioned whether Clinton had ever ridden on a John Deere tractor, as Fiorina did earlier in the day at another event.
“I know she had a few photo ops,” Fiorina said.
Perry, meanwhile, had a distinct focus on veterans on Saturday, the anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy during World War II. His motorcycle ride raised money for a group that trains service dogs for wounded veterans.
“I’m on a stage here with some legitimate American heroes,” he said alongside former Navy SEALs and Taya Kyle, the widow of the slain soldier featured in the movie “American Sniper.”
Asked if he felt left out because he didn’t ride a motorcycle, Huckabee laughed.
“If I had ridden a motorcycle, I’m not sure I would have made it,” said Huckabee, who won the state’s 2008 caucuses. “If God wanted me to be on a motorcycle, he would have given me two wheels instead of two legs.”
Carson reflected upon his days practicing medicine. “I can’t tell you how many nights I spent in an operating room, operating on people who were riding motorcycles,” he said.
Rubio declined an invitation to ride on the back of Ernst’s bike.
“I look forward to doing it soon at some point,” Rubio said while being mobbed for photos. He added, “If we can get a jet ski ride going, I can take her.”
Some voters were relieved to see a day without overt criticism.
“I hope it’s too early for them to start attacking each other. It’s so exhausting,” said Kam Stupka, a volunteer with the Puppy Jake Foundation. “Every candidate ought to be supporting puppies.”
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