(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump skipped a motorcycles-and-barbecue fundraiser that’s the marquee Republican political event of the early summer in Iowa, ceding the stage to a gaggle of contenders led by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
DeSantis, faced with pressure to improve his retail politics, worked crowds at US Senator Joni Ernst’s Roast and Ride on Saturday — he stopped for ice cream with his children at a stand his super PAC set up in the parking lot at the Des Moines event, signed the side of his team’s touring bus and posed for pictures.
His wife, Casey DeSantis, wore a black leather jacket that said “WHERE WOKE GOES TO DIE” inside an outline of the state of Florida.
Trump, who met with GOP state officials earlier in the week, was a no-show at the Des Moines biker rally and cattle-call for presidential aspirants. Polls give the former US president a wide lead over DeSantis, his closest challenger, and the rest of the pack.
DeSantis, trailed by a pack of reporters, didn’t answer questions about whether he’d sign a pledge promising to support the eventual GOP nominee. Asked about Trump’s absence, he said he was just happy to be there — then made a beeline to pet some puppies.
“I thought there was a little more fire in DeSantis than normal and I was happy to see that,” said audience member Sarah Williams, a retail manager from Cedar Rapids.
As for Trump, “our concern is he’s a little too polarizing, even though we’re such big fans of him,’ she said. “I would love to say, ‘Put him back in and let him fix it,’ but I don’t know if he’s electable.”
Trump and DeSantis made swings through Iowa earlier this week. While President Joe Biden has moved to push South Carolina to the front of the line for Democratic presidential voting, the state is still scheduled to hold Republicans’ first-in-the nation caucus.
On Wednesday night, Trump invited several GOP state elected officials to 801 Chophouse, a popular venue for visiting politicos, and talked about how well he’s doing in the polls as he dined on steak with salt, mashed potatoes and cheesecake, according to people familiar with the conversation. Trump seemed to be seeking endorsements to box out DeSantis, two of the people said.
Ernst’s team had asked if Trump wanted to do an appearance by taped video at her event, but he didn’t submit one. There has been tension in the past between Trump and Ernst, who at times distanced herself from him.
Former Vice President Mike Pence was the only one to mount a motorcycle, a Harley-Davidson Road King, for Ernst’s biker parade, known for its backslaps, leather vests, American flags, rider signals and scent of gas and oil.
In 2017, the motorcycle route was 49 miles (79 kilometers) when Pence headlined the Roast and Ride, but the then-vice president rode only a matter of meters, trailed by Secret Service agents on foot.
This year, he was less constrained.
Pence told the bikers that a reporter asked him about the political “lane” he’d be in for this race. The devout Christian joked: “I’m more worried about the lane we’re going to be staying in today,” referring to this year’s 24-mile motorcycle route.
Ticket holders and VIPs who didn’t take part in the motorcycle ride headed straight for the state fairgrounds to hear from the speakers, who also included US Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, radio personality Larry Elder, businessman Perry Johnson, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson and pharmaceutical entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
Former US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley seemed to take a jab at Trump.
“We’ve got to start doing this in a way that we can win a general election,” she told the crowd. “It’s time for a new generational leader. We got to leave the baggage and the negativity behind.”
Scott said: “I scare the dickens out of the radical left and Joe Biden — the proof of my life destroys their lies.”
The senator, who received a standing ovation, previewed that he’ll be on ABC’s “The View” on Monday.
“I think it’s time for a conservative with a backbone to look those ladies in the eye and say ‘You do not have to be the exception to succeed in America,’” Scott said.
Elder, who is Black, opened his remarks with: “Say hello to the Black face of white supremacy.”
After all the speeches, some audience members pointed to Haley as a dark horse to watch. There was buzz about Scott, as well. Pence, they said, is in a tough spot running on the successes of the Trump administration while competing with the former president himself.
“I really liked Nikki Haley, I really liked DeSantis,” said Ray Gaesser, a farmer from southwest Iowa. “As for Trump, I prefer that he not be our nominee. Nine out of 10 of my Republican friends say the same thing.”
(Updates with Trump event in ninth paragraph, audience comments throughout.)
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.