BOONE, Iowa — It was loud. There was a lot of leather. And there were a half dozen 2016 presidential hopefuls all vying for votes in the state that will hold the first presidential contest in February.
With its strong attendance — both from voters and candidates — Saturday’s inaugural “Roast and Ride” here in Boone promised to become a must-stop on the path to the 2016 presidential race. Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst served as master of ceremonies at an event that she hopes will become the successor to former Sen. Tom Harkin’s “steak fry,” which drew Democratic presidential candidates every four years.
Ernst, a Republican, was elected in 2014 as an Iowa farm girl who told voters that after castrating hogs she’d know how to “make ’em squeal” in Washington.
But she also caught the attention of Hawkeye state voters with an ad where she rode her Harley-Davidson motorcycle to a shooting range and trained her fire on “Obamacare,” while making it clear that she carried more than lipstick in her purse.
The freshman Iowa senator has promised to stay neutral in the 2016 Iowa caucuses, but she rode on the 38-mile ride from Des Moines to Boone with Wisconsin Sen. Scott Walker, a friend and fellow Harley rider.
Walker, who hails from a neighboring state and has won praise from Iowa voters for taking on labor unions in his own state, has led in the polls here in Iowa for several months. But many political strategists here — who have seen wild swings in recent presidential cycles — have cautioned that early polls have little significance in determining who will be the winner of the Iowa caucuses in February.
More than a half dozen campaigns were out in force, trying to organize voters and sign up volunteers. The ride drew hundreds of Harley-Davidson riders, but also many families who were treated with free barbecue, games such as corn hole, and a moon bounce where kids could blow off steam far from the speeches at the podium.
Though Walker had the advantage of riding just behind Ernst into the ride, voters here were clearly open to their options.
Rather than ride with the Ernst crowd, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry forged his own path with a ride to Boone from the appropriately named town of Perry, Iowa.
“Ride with Rick” was a fundraiser for Puppy Jake, a program that connects veterans with service dogs. Before departing on a motorcycle belonging to an injured veteran, Perry spoke to a crowd surrounded by veterans Marcus Luttrell and Dan Moran, as well as Taya Kyle, widow of American Sniper author Chris Kyle.
Although Sen. Marco Rubio wasn’t able to take up Joni Ernst on her offer to ride on the back of her bike, he said he’s planning a different kind of ride.
“If we could get a jet ski ride, I could take her,” the Floridian told voters near his tent.
Other non-Harley riding candidates — including Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson — also had many fans within the crowd in Boone.
Still, Walker may have garnered the most attention after riding into Boone with Ernst. Though he has not yet declared his candidacy, Walker immediately greeted voters upon his arrival, walking along a white picket fence to take photos and shake hands with people on the other side.
“I’m a retired teacher and I’m so glad you took on the teachers union,” one woman told him.
Wearing a Harley shirt from Des Moines, Walker frequently told people “it was good to ride with Joni” when asked how the ride was. Earlier, in interviews with the press, he was careful to avoid the assertion that he had an advantage in Iowa because of his affinity with motorcycle riders.
One man he greeted was wearing a handwritten badge that declared he was supporting Walker for president. “Also Rand Paul for Vice President in 2016,” it also said.
Perry arrived a short time later, with his own pool of bikers behind him. “It was good to be out on the road,” the wind-blown politician said as he got off his bike and took his helmet off.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee greeted voters under his tent. Many of them told him they hoped he would win the Iowa caucuses for a second time. But Harley riders, admittedly, may not be Huckabee’s niche.
Asked whether he also rode a motorcycle, Huckabee said no: “There’s just a few things in life I’m not ready to do.”
By Maeve Reston, Ashley Killough and Betsy Klein