DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz raised the roast turkey leg like a sword during his debut at the Iowa State Fair in 2014. The rising conservative joined a half-dozen other Republican presidential hopefuls on a stroll through the Grand Halle.
Four years later, nearly as many Democrats made the pilgrimage to the fair, including former US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, who meandered past the tables under the Iowa Pork Producer’s tent at the annual tribute to Midwestern overindulgence.
But as the 2022 fair entered its final weekend, traffic was noticeably light in 2024.
It speaks to the cautious dance prospective presidential candidates are attempting, as Democrats remain uncertain about President Joe Biden’s political future and many Republicans avoid taking on former President Donald Trump. Several potential GOP candidates have quietly made political advances in the nation’s first nominating state, but they’ve done so by campaigning alongside Iowa candidates, not by being so obvious as to be standing on straw bales at a permanent stop for White House hopefuls.
“There is something of a Trump effect. You still come here. But they know the emphasis needs to be on being here for the Iowa Republican nominee.” said Michael Bousselot, a former top adviser to Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds and now a GOP state representative for the Des Moines area. “The fair is more in-your-face campaigns. If you’re overzealous, people might be like, ‘Whoa, President Trump’s still the guy.’”
That means the few who entered the gates on the working-class east side of Des Moines did so with little such apprehension.
Mike Pence, Trump’s estranged former vice president, attended the fair on Friday, and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a prominent Trump critic, was there last week.
A Pence in cowboy boots was escorted by seven-year-old Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, as countless prospects have done in the White House over the years. However, the former vice president was careful to focus his policy remarks on the midterm elections in November, when Grassley is up for election, rather than the 2024 presidential race.
“It’s an honor to be with you here at the Iowa State Fair,” he told Grassley while the politicians were surrounded by dozens of news reporters and photographers in the shadow of the century-old brick grandstand. “Iowa and America need six more years of Chuck Grassley.”
Pence was later caught in a rapidly developing thunderstorm that drenched him and his entourage as they took shelter under the Iowa Pork Producers’ tent. Undeterred, Pence waded through the soggy crowds of fairgoers and even got a few bites from one of the fair’s signature portable calorie monstrosities.
As hail pounded the roof, Pence tried one “Picnic in a Cup” — Pulled pork, coleslaw, baked beans and fritos, topped with barbecue sauce and bacon.
The food choices and attire of politicians at the Iowa State Fair are almost as important as the visits themselves.
In 2003, Democrat John Kerry memorably ordered a strawberry smoothie, notable for an event known for its celebration of meat and fried foods. In 2007, Republican Fred Thompson was mocked for wearing Gucci loafers, which contrasted with the contestants’ more common flip-flops and cowboy boots.
Hogan more anonymously ate grilled pork chops — a rite of passage for any White House aspirant — as he strolled through the mess hall with Reynolds, his fellow governor.
Despite the smiles and laughs they shared, the couple painted an uncomfortable political picture. Strongly favored for re-election in November, Reynolds is backed by Trump and is a staunch supporter of the former president.
The dynamic reflects both the state GOP’s pro-Trump leanings and the lurking liabilities for him.
A majority of Republicans in Iowa — 57% — said they hope Trump decides to run for president again in 2024, according to a July Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa poll. A third of respondents said they hope he doesn’t.
Trump has enjoyed his kingmaker status in recent months, leading his supported candidates to victory in primary elections ranging from the top of the ticket to the state legislature. And while he faces a slew of swirling investigations, including an investigation through a U.S. Department of Justice search of his Florida home for classified documents, aides say it matters more when he announces his candidacy for president than if he announces them.
Kevin Holmes, a Republican from central Iowa, would do that “Absolutely” consider supporting an alternative to Trump in the 2024 election assemblies.
“I’m just not happy with Trump’s character” said the 61-year-old retired police officer as he walked through the fair with his wife. “He alienated a lot of people. If there was a viable alternative, I would jump in at any time.”
While Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — a frequent Trump alternate mentioned by Iowa Republicans — has stayed away from Iowa as he seeks re-election in November, others like Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton are the Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others visited Iowa this summer to promote Reynolds, Grassley and others.
On Thursday, Cruz was at the Clear Lake summer resort in northern Iowa leading a private fundraiser for Grassley.
Cruz, who won the 2016 caucuses and struggled well into that primary season, said this month he would wait and see what Trump’s plans are before entertaining a second presidential campaign. He also suggested that a Trump candidacy would deter several prospects from entering the 2024 race.
With that in mind, Cruz was in and out of Iowa in one day, avoiding the fair by 110 miles.
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