BOONE, Iowa - Hogs, pork and red meat were front and center in the Republican presidential nomination fight Saturday as seven likely candidates rode Harleys, chopped barbecue and pushed their way through crowds of Iowa voters at the inaugural Roast and Ride fundraiser.
Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst led a parade of hundreds of motorcyclists from the Harley Davidson dealership in Des Moines to the rural town of Boone, where an enormous flag hung from a fire truck rippled in the strong wind.
“Howdy, Iowa!” former Texas Gov. Rick Perry declared after riding up to the Iowa Expo Center on a Harley owned by a veteran who lost all four limbs in an IED attack. “Freedom, ridin’ free, being with a bunch of American heroes!"
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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the only presidential hopeful to actually ride next to Ernst, is a longtime Harley rider — but he told msnbc he wasn’t still committed to becoming president of the company, as he once insisted.
“It would be a more fun, easier job, but I don’t think I’ll have a shot at that one,” Walker said.
Perry and Walker were two of seven candidates who descended on Iowa for what could be the state’s biggest event of the summer, with the famed Iowa Straw Poll, scheduled for August, losing some power and momentum. Former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Sens. Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio also spoke.
Missing were New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Rand Paul, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — who was at the family compound of Kennebunkport, Maine, to celebrate his mother Barbara’s upcoming 90th birthday.
The candidates who did appear largely steered clear of criticizing each other, instead focusing on likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
“I really would be tempted to ask Hillary Clinton if she has ever ridden on a John Deere tractor?” Fiorina asked rhetorically after regaling the crowd with her story of marching in a local parade earlier in the day and hitching a ride on a tractor.
“Let me tell you, Hillary Clinton, your definition of flat broke and mine are a little bit different,” said Graham, who told his personal story of growing up in the back room of a bar and losing both of his parents at a young age.
On the sidelines, each campaign staffed tents handing out bumper stickers and other memorabilia and collecting names to add to their voter lists. The candidates themselves milled through the crowd, as many as five of them at one point shaking hands in a small, packed space within feet of each other.
Some booths were more active than others. At the Fiorina table, during a quiet moment, one volunteer was heard asking the other how many corporate boards she served on.
An undertone of the event, though, was some concern about the role the Iowa caucuses play in the presidential process. The Des Moines Register on Saturday published a front-page story outlining how the state has lost some of its power in the presidential process, including the decline of the Straw Poll and the loss of some control over debates.
Many national Republicans privately feel the caucuses put too much pressure on candidates to take conservative positions that are hard to defend to a general electorate — and the Republican National Committee has moved to take more control over debates, giving each early state just one. There were three GOP primary debates in Iowa in 2012.
Not that any Republican presidential hopefuls were willing to admit that. Rubio, in an interview with msnbc, defended the caucus process and said that he planned to compete hard in Iowa even though he’s skipping the Straw Poll.
Rubio also skipped the motorcycle riding on Saturday — he’s never been on a bike in his life.
“I’ve never been on a motorcycle, I mean, I've been on jet skis, I'm more of a water sport person,” he said. “My mom was always terrified of motorcycles. As a little kid she used to traumatize us about them.”
msnbc political producer Elyse Perlmutter-Gumbiner contributed to this report.