The GOP field descends on Iowa, readying to eat some humble pie

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Over the course of three days in Iowa this week, the political pitfalls and opportunities of the state already became apparent. Any candidate for office can be rewarded for the right amount of gladhanding and pork eating and farm marveling. And those with an eye on the presidency in 2024 gave it their shot. But the voters In Iowa are picky too. They don’t hide it.

“We like to be courted,” said Patti Parlee of Urbandale, who was at the Polk County Republican dinner on Wednesday to hear Scott speak.

Just a few weeks into the 2024 GOP primary, that courtship has begun. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley held packed town halls in Iowa on Monday and Tuesday, while former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Vice President Mike Pence have made their own stops in the state. Biotech entrepreneur turned anti-woke activist Vivek Ramaswamy has come as well, bringing autographed copies of his book, “Woke Inc.,” to offer the first 100 people who showed up Thursday at Machine Shed, a popular restaurant for Republican gatherings in Polk and Dallas counties.

The nature of the campaign and the caucus makes it impossible for candidates to hide their personalities or evade scrutiny. The results are an even playing field.

“Even though Trump is probably the favorite, I wouldn’t say it’s in the bag,” said Steve Scheffler, Iowa’s Republican National Committeeman. “If Iowans feel like they’re taken for granted, it doesn’t sit too well.”

After announcing her presidential candidacy just over a week ago, Haley drew capacity crowds and tangible enthusiasm. At an event space inside Legacy Manufacturing in Marion, Elton John’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” blared from the speakers as Wendy Hartman stood outside the room, peering in through the doorway. There was a standing crowd in the back.

“I’ve not ever been to a political event before,” said Hartman, a conservative from Cedar Rapids.

Hartman was among a series of Iowa Republican voters interviewed this week who said they’re inclined to support Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — should he get into the race — are cautious about former President Donald Trump, and open to hearing from the rest of the field. Backing Haley, to Hartman, was a distinct possibility: the type of candidate who could bridge the good of Trumpism without the drama, all while reinstalling traditional Republican politics.

At her stop that night, Haley tried to sell voters on her experience as executive of a state, a member of Trump’s Cabinet standing up to world leaders and a mother crusading against children learning about sex and gender in schools. But she also got a whiff of the indignities that female candidates often encounter when seeking higher office.

During the question and answer portion of Haley’s town hall, one man suggested that she choose South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem as her running mate.

“Because …” Roger Dvorak, 80, started to explain.

“She’s hot!” another man in the audience called out. The audience erupted in laughter.

“Nikki, you’re not too bad yourself,” Dvorak continued.

Haley gave an uncomfortable laugh before saying the exchange was “digressing quickly.” In an interview afterward, Dvorak acknowledged the remark was inappropriate. If not Noem, he added, Haley should run with former Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard.

Iowa political veterans say that the state’s extremely up-close style of politicking serves a purpose, chauvinistic episodes and all.

Still, there is fear that Iowa this cycle may not play its traditional role. With the exception of Trump, who last week announced top staff hires in Iowa, none of the candidates or prospective candidates appear to have yet established any robust campaign operations in the state. Democrats have left Iowa behind in the party’s nominating process, voting to move South Carolina first on the calendar. And even Republicans in the state are worried about what the change could mean for them.

Gloria Mazza, chair of the Polk County Republican Party, corrected an audience member at the Lincoln Dinner who shouted out that the Iowa Democrats are “losers!” for no longer having the No. 1 spot.

“No, not losers,” Mazza said sternly, suggesting the GOP faithful urge their Democratic friends to lobby state Democratic officials to do something to fight back. “They want it as much as we do.”

But as top GOP stars like Trump and DeSantis have so far avoided Iowa, others in the prospective and declared field are trying to make an early mark on the Hawkeye State.

Kelly Koch, chair of the Dallas County Republican Party, said she continues to field calls from high-profile Republicans wanting to visit the county, one of Iowa’s fastest growing. Last week Kari Lake, who lost her November race for Arizona governor, held an event with the Dallas County GOP. On Monday, the local party hosted Haley and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds in a packed showroom at Royal Flooring in Urbandale.

Scott, too, seems likely to be a fixture here as he adjusts to the politics of the state and his place within it. Making his way to the West Des Moines Marriott on Wednesday evening for the Lincoln Dinner, the senator got a call from his longtime friend and fellow South Carolinian Trey Gowdy, reminding him of the surrealness of it all.

“When you were at Stall High School about to flunk out,” the former congressman said, “could you imagine taking a trip to Iowa, to talk about restoring faith in the nation?”

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( With inputs from : )

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