10:42 a.m. — No act of ingratiation is too small in Iowa. The pro-Ron DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down is passing out ice cream, and while walking through the parking lot, I spot 77-year-old Bonnie Qualley eating some as she stands in the shade of Vivek Ramaswamy’s campaign bus. It isn’t moving her. She tells me she’s for Donald Trump.
The former president skipped the event. But Qualley, of Des Moines, was at Trump’s town hall event with Sean Hannity in Iowa on Thursday. “He’s really smart and he’s on top of everything,” she says of Trump. “He’s going to win.”
10:46 a.m. — There’s a young man operating a mechanical bull-style contraption that turns out to be a mechanical motorcycle. I ask him if anyone has been on it yet. “Yeah, one guy … twice.”
11:04 a.m. — At the table for Trump, they’re raffling off an autographed MAGA cap for those who sign up to volunteer for the campaign.
Trump isn’t desperate for a list of supporters. But among the longshot candidates, there is a palpable concern about getting enough donors and poll support to make the first debate stage. I walk up to Perry Johnson’s table. “One dollar will get you anything here,” his staffer says. “We’re trying to get on the debate stage.”
Johnson, a wealthy Michigan businessman who isn’t registering in polling, will need all the help he can get to meet the RNC’s newly announced participation criteria for the first debate in August. The staffer explains I could walk away with multiple items with a $1 donation — a book, T-shirt and a hat, even.
Iowans like free stuff as much as anyone. But they’re so used to being courted by politicians every four years that getting them on volunteer and donor lists can be a lift. Howard Rupp, 76, of Altoona, asks the Moms for Liberty member running DeSantis’ table if he can take a DeSantis hat if he promises to wear it. Asked if he would like to sign up to volunteer, Rupp shakes his head. “I’m too old for that,” he says.
He also declines the offer to give his email address for the DeSantis campaign’s list. “I almost had to change my email address and phone number last time I signed up at Joni’s thing,” Rupp says, believing his information was sold because he was inundated with so many solicitations for political donations.
11:12 a.m. — It’s not even noon, but the food is in high demand. Folks have begun piling Lynch BBQ’s sliced pork onto buns, squirting bottles of sauce on top and ladling baked beans onto Styrofoam plates. One man adds three chocolate chip cookies to his platter of food.
11:23 a.m. — DeSantis has arrived and is greeting supporters by the Never Back Down Bus. His wife, Casey, is showing an unparalleled commitment to wearing branded jackets, today sporting a leather “Where Woke Goes to Die” coat in 85-degree heat. She is holding their 3-year-old on her hip. The couple, who have been emphasizing their relative youthfulness as they travel the country, pledged in Iowa on Wednesday to bring their three children out on the campaign trail. They seem to be struggling to wrangle all these kids within a swarm of supporters and reporters.
But DeSantis — who has faced quite a bit of criticism for his aloofness — is out here doing retail politics, and he seems to be improving at it. “That’s an oldie but a goodie,” DeSantis says as he signs a bumper sticker from his 2018 congressional campaign. “Do you play golf?” DeSantis asks another man, before pivoting to his Covid response. “During the pandemic, I was telling everyone to get outside, so in April of 2020, they set a record for golf rounds in The Villages.”
He encourages his 3-year-old, Mamie, to say hello to a 2-year-old girl in a pink camouflage Harley Davidson T-shirt. A woman has DeSantis sign what appears to be a generic photo of himself waving, which he immediately recognized as being from a 2020 rally. A member of the conservative Bull Moose Club here invites DeSantis to come speak to the group, as some of the lower-polling Republicans in the race have already done. He says to talk to his staff.
11:29 a.m. — DeSantis holds up his daughter to help him sign the Never Back Down bus. Chaos ensues as he walks away. Reporters are sprinting to catch up with them. The family briefly loses 5-year-old Madison in the crowd, though she is soon recovered. At the super PAC’s ice cream tent, the children each get a scoop while DeSantis, who has slimmed down in recent months, goes without.
11:36 a.m. — Organizers are shouting that the motorcycles are about to come through, and everyone needs to get out of the way. The scrum remains focused on the Florida governor.
11:45 a.m. — The reporters who were surrounding DeSantis for a solid 20 minutes are now looking for Mike Pence in the line of bikers driving into the parking lot, only to learn he had already arrived and we all missed him. A couple dozen reporters had gotten shots of him leaving the Harley Davidson dealership with Ernst earlier in the morning, but this moment underscores the reality of the place where Pence has found himself: The former vice president, like all of the other underdog candidates, perpetually overshadowed by Trump and DeSantis.
12:17 p.m. — A line of reporters has formed to interview Sen. Chuck Grassley.
12:20 p.m. — The food supplies are dwindling. There’s one box of cookies remaining, and attendees are gobbling them up. Another man grabs three with his hands, forfeiting the tongs, as if he is stockpiling for an impending emergency.
Multiple people are calling out for someone to bring out another tray of baked beans. A man with an American flag bandana around his head is scraping the bottom of the empty pan, remarking that the baked beans are his favorite.
12:24 p.m. — Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, accompanied today by her much more reserved husband, Michael, is now mingling with the crowd, giving hugs and taking selfies. She has on her cowgirl boots.
12:30 p.m. — Pence, who has changed out of his leather and into a navy blue blazer, has also been making the rounds, accompanied by his wife, Karen. “How was the ride?” a reporter asks. “Great. Loved it. I’ve got a dog named Harley.” (Harley, according to Pence’s book, is an Australian Shepherd.)
12:31 p.m. — The scrum of cameras that was around DeSantis seems to have moved on to Perry Johnson; for some reason that isn’t obvious to me. He’s wearing his signature sunglasses inside and signing copies of his book “Two Cents to Save America.” He asks someone at the table whose name to include as he signs the book. “Ron,” the man’s wife shouts. Johnson asks her how to spell it.
“R-o-n,” she says.
12:50 p.m. — Ernst is on stage. There’s a wall of hay bales, a line of American and Iowa flags, two large screens and a pair of John Deere tractors on each side of the platform. “Border security!” she shouts over and over as the crowd roars with applause and cheers. The program is underway and Ramaswamy has now arrived inside.
12:55 p.m. – Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks. Grassley speaks.
“Today I want to talk to you about something that doesn’t get talked about enough, and that’s the Deep State,” he says.
1:11 p.m. – Sen. Tim Scott comes on stage and announces that Grassley today is wearing a pair of socks Scott gave him.
Less than two minutes into his speech, he is bashing “The View,” generating boos from the audience. Then, if you needed a reminder that much of the GOP’s media bashing is quite lucrative for them — Scott has been fundraising off Joy Behar’s criticism for weeks — he announces he’ll be on the show Monday.
1:23 p.m. — Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, wearing an “Asa” ball cap, leads with talk about “advancing computer science education,” which, unsurprisingly, is not the type of red meat the base goes wild over.
Along with Pence, and now DeSantis, Hutchinson has been one of the only candidates in the field to criticize Trump. The crowd livens up as he talks about hitchhiking to go visit his now-wife while he was in law school. Pointing to his time as Arkansas GOP chair, “when Bill Clinton was governor, and then president,” Hutchinson begs the audience to believe he is a “fighter.”
1:34 p.m. — “Say hello to the Black face of white supremacy,” Larry Elder says as he takes the stage. Like some other longshot candidates, he is at risk of not qualifying for the first debate. He solicits donations. “As little as 10 bucks, just get me up there on that debate stage in Milwaukee, and game on, hold my beer,” Elder says.
At the hotel bar the night before, sipping a vodka martini with three olives, Elder signed up a few new supporters. I watched as he wrote down a man’s email address on a scrap piece of paper. A young woman across the bar went to his website on her phone and donated. Elder asked me to read his book, or if not that, to “at least read the Amazon reviews — I am a very, very, very good writer.”
Here now, on stage, he recalls another reporter asking him in the hotel lobby the day before what everyone seems to be wondering: “Why are you doing this?”
1:46 p.m. — Perry Johnson, who has now removed his sunglasses, announces from stage that he isn’t “woke,” something the crowd audibly appreciates. But then Johnson seems to lose them when he says he is “laser-focused on the economy.” He rails against the RNC’s debate requirements, calling them “ridiculous.”
Despite his campaign staffer asking attendees for $1 back at the table, Johnson makes the audience an even better offer: “I’m just going to ask for 2 cents.”
The crowd erupts in applause, and Johnson seems surprised. He beams. He then announces he’ll actually give away his book for free. “I won’t even charge you 2 cents.”
1:57 p.m. — “Thank you, Perry. Very inspirational,” Ernst says, before introducing Ramaswamy.
2:14 p.m. — Pence’s wife walks out with him on stage and waves at the crowd. She steps off and he begins his speech. “I rode, and I roasted, on the ride,” Pence says. He teases his presidential campaign launch set for Wednesday in Ankeny declaring “I’m announcing in Iowa!” Pence closes his speech with scripture and recites the final lines of the Pledge of Allegiance.
2:29 p.m. — Did Pence start a trend? Haley is walking on with her spouse, too, as Tom Petty’s “American Girl” plays. “I wanted you to see that cute husband of mine,” Haley says, noting he is soon deploying with the Army National Guard. The crowd responds well to her pledge to “catch and deport” immigrants in the country illegally. Haley interrupts her speech to say “bless you” when someone in the crowd sneezes.
So far, she is the only one to bring up the caucuses. “Don’t complain about what you get in a general if you don’t play in this caucus.”
2:47 p.m. — The audience may be weary from enduring all of these speeches, but the main attraction is up: DeSantis. He is giving the same speech he recited here all week, touting his Florida accomplishments while comparing his own state to Iowa. But the crowd does not seem to mind, applauding fairly consistently throughout his 15-minute remarks.
3:10 p.m. — The show is over, but Ramaswamy is working the room. He signs a copy of his book. He signs a woman’s golf ball. His own cameraman is shooting all of this, as is the case with everywhere Ramaswamy goes.
“I like your hat,” he says to a man in a “Vivek” cap.
“I just picked it up,” the man replies. “For a dollar.”