As Republican presidential hopefuls negotiated a motorcycle ride and pig roast Saturday in Iowa farm country, the race was on for who had more swagger – the bikers who could become the party’s nominee, or the female senator leading the trip.
There was Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor who is not yet an official candidate for president, front and center on a shiny silver Harley-Davidson.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, riding in from the next town over, who enjoys the Iowa street cred of one who often appears more at home in blue jeans and cowboy boots than the suits of Washington.
But Joni Ernst, the first woman to represent Iowa in Congress – who promised, in a memorable campaign ad, to apply her farm experience castrating hogs to make Washington “squeal” – may emerge as the day’s leader of the pack.
“Ride to live, live to ride!” the Republican senator cheered outside Big Barn Harley-Davidson in Des Moines before climbing aboard her 2009 Softail Deluxe and heading out for the 38-mile trip to host a pig roast in Boone.
“Joni's 1st annual Roast and Ride” was part fundraiser, part campaign stop on the road to Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucus next year, drawing not only Walker and Perry, but Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Carly Fiorina.
Rubio, who didn't ride but joined the roast, provided much of the buzz as Iowans begin to take a closer look at the candidate who they ranked second, after Walker, in the crowded GOP field, according to a recent Bloomberg Politics-Des Moines Register poll.
The Florida senator flexed his swagger on stage with a crowd-pleasing swipe at the Democratic front runner Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"We have blessed as a party to have so many good candidates," Rubio said. "The Democrats can't even come up with one."
But Saturday also served as a coming out debut for Ernst, the 44-year-old Army Reserve officer who wowed the political establishment when she won the open Senate seat last fall.
Ernst has taken the old-fashioned approach to starting her Senate career. She has kept a lower profile than some of her fellow freshmen, as Senate tradition prefers, and quietly gone about the business of doing her job, much the way another trailblazing female senator, Hillary Rodham Clinton, once did.
She voted yes on the party’s budget, no on reforms of the National Security Agency surveillance program and, at home, is visiting every one of the state’s 99 counties, an Iowa tradition pioneered by the state’s senior Sen. Charles E. Grassley and now known as the “Full Grassley.”
Saturday's event, though, offered the opportunity for her to kickstart her profile.
“I love a senator who knows how to castrate a pig, ride a hog and cut the pork in Washington, D.C.,” Walker said, taking the stage amid hay bales and country music at the Central Iowa Exposition grounds in Boone. ”Now wouldn't it be nice to give her an ally in the White House to help get the job done?”
For the potential presidential hopefuls, the event provided a dilemma: To ride, or not to ride.
While Walker and Perry were all set to climb on their “hogs,” for others the smarter strategy was just to glide into town.
Rubio, who declined an offer to ride on the back of Ernst's bike, was holding a meet-and-greet in the morning before making his way to Boone. Carson was expected at the Des Moines downtown Farmer's Market. Fiorina walked the parade route in nearby Story City.
Others capitalized on their ability to roar in on two wheels.
”That's what America is all about --living free, riding free,” Perry told the crowd from the stage. “That's why I want to be your president, because America's freedoms are worth fighting for every single day.”
Iowans, though, cut the candidates some slack.
The day was Iowa politics at its hometown best — candidates taking selfies, chopping pork and smoozing with a robust crowd of people who, as many will tell you, expect to look the candidates in the eye before giving them a vote.
As nearly 300 bikers gathered to ride at the Harley-Davidson dealership just north of downtown, many residents appeared ready to hear the candidates out, regardless of their roadside abilities.
”My mind's not made up,” said “Mohawk” Mike Right, an education specialist for a motorcycle advocacy group.
Ernst, who has not endorsed any of the candidates, even though Rubio was an early backer of her Senate campaign, said she too was keeping an open mind.
“What I'm looking for is a candidate who's going to stand up and defend the constitution,” said Ernst, in jeans, boots and black leather biker vest, with a fanny pack slung at her waist.
On that, the riders, before boarding their bikes, hollered approval.