DES MOINES, Iowa — The largest group of Republican presidential candidates yet gathered in Iowa at Sen. Joni Ernst’s (R-IA) annual roast and motorcycle ride Saturday as movement on the 2024 campaign trail picks up speed.
Ernst hosted eight candidates at the eighth annual event, where more than 200 motorcycles rode from Big Barn Harley-Davidson to the famous Iowa State Fairgrounds.
“We all know that the road to 2024, it runs through Iowa, and, folks, it runs through the Roast and Ride right here today,” Ernst said to a crowd of about a thousand. “This is the biggest event that we have had yet.”
Ernst, who grew up on an Iowa farm and made headlines in 2014 for a “make ’em squeal” Senate ad mentioning castrating hogs, rode into the event on her Harley alongside former Vice President Mike Pence.
Pence will announce his candidacy in the Hawkeye State this coming week but set himself apart Saturday by being the only guest to ride in on a motorcycle alongside Ernst.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has been polling in second place to former President Donald Trump in most polls, attracted swarms of attention from media and supporters just ahead of the bikes cruising into the fairgrounds.
One supporter who said he was a veteran thanked DeSantis for understanding “what a veteran is and what they need,” to which the governor, who served in the Navy, replied, “Absolutely. It’s a bond.”
Another thanked DeSantis for “standing up against woke Disney.” The governor is in the midst of an ongoing legal battle with Disney over development contracts following the entertainment giant criticizing the state’s Parental Rights in Education Act, which detractors call the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
“Oh yeah, don’t worry about that. We won’t back down on that,” DeSantis replied.
Also in attendance were former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, conservative media personality Larry Elder, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, and Michigan businessman Perry Johnson.
Becoming a regular in Iowa ahead of the state’s caucuses, the first contests of the presidential primaries, has been par for the course for candidates for decades, jolting the Iowa winners with momentum as they take on subsequent states.
Democrats, however, “ditched Iowa” this year, Ernst observed, leaving the landlocked midwestern state for South Carolina, which Democrats argue will give black voters more of a voice in their primary.
“What did the Democrats do? The Democrats ditched Iowa. They went to the coasts, right? They think of us as flyover country, so they have ditched Iowa. They have given middle America the middle finger,” Ernst said, asserting that Iowa would remain “first in the nation” for Republicans.
The state’s senior senator, Sen. Chuck Grassley, as well as Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa’s all-Republican congressional delegation also made an appearance.
Amid wafts of barbecue and pig-adorned table settings, Iowans and caucus goers listened to each of the candidates on stage for roughly ten-minute speeches.
“Iowa’s the place that’s shaped the standard-bearer of this party,” Pence said in a stately tone before announcing to loud applause his forthcoming campaign launch.
Haley prompted wild cheers of approval when she dove into culture wars, a focal point of the primary.
“Biological boys playing in girls’ sports is the biggest issue of our time,” she said.
In an interview with Breitbart News ahead of her speech, the former governor and ambassador to the United Nations said the Roast and Ride lets attendees “see the differences” among the expanding primary field.
“I want them to look at our records. I want them to see that I have executive experience and foreign policy experience, and I want them to see my toughness, and I think that they’re gonna see that today and on the debate stage,” Haley said.
Larry Elder, who last year mounted a high-profile challenge to California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) in a recall election, greeted the crowd by saying with a grin, “Say hello to the black face of white supremacy,” a reference to a Los Angeles Times columnist’s criticism of him.
Scott spoke about his powerful life story, which began with him growing up in poverty with a single mother who worked as a nurse’s aide.
“She looked at me and gave me another motivational lesson. She said, ‘We can be a victim or we can be a victor.’ She chose victorious,” he said. “She also taught me that there is dignity in all work. That’s why I know if you’re able-bodied in America, you work.”
DeSantis was the closing speaker at the event, entering the stage to a standing ovation with his wife Casey, who sported a black leather “where woke goes to die” jacket.
The popular governor laid out Florida policies as evidence he could “restore American greatness,” touting that the Sunshine State chose “freedom over Faucism” and instituted a number of conservative changes, such as a pro-life heartbeat bill and constitutional carry.
“As president I will be an energetic executive. I will go on offense. I will lean into all the issues that matter,” DeSantis vowed.
Several attendees Breitbart News spoke with were open-minded while others would say, for instance, that they were “impressed with Ramaswamy” or a diehard Trump supporter or pro-Haley.
When asked if attendees had any concerns with Trump’s noticeable absence, Dan from Cedar Rapids told Breitbart News, “I’ve got a lot of worries about Trump. … He should’ve come, but he’s trying to play that ‘I’m the lead dog. You have to come chase me.'”
Haley, too, made a veiled jab at Trump, saying, “Don’t complain about what you get in the general if you don’t play in this caucus.”
Ernst told reporters after the event that she “did extend an offer [to Trump] to come to the Roast and Ride.”
“Obviously, as president, he has other considerations to think about whether he does the multi-candidate events or not,” she continued. “We made that offer and everyone is welcome here.”