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It's been a busy week in Iowa for Republican presidential hopefuls

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The 2024 election campaign is fully underway, and there's no better sign than a busy week in Iowa. Republicans vying for the presidential nomination have been in and out of the state. Former President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis were just there. And Saturday, Iowa Senator Joni Ernst hosted most of the hopefuls at her Roast and Ride with barbecue and a motorcycle ride. Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters takes us on the campaign trail.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Ron DeSantis's first visit to Iowa as an official candidate started with a trip to church.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JESSE NEWMAN: And I pray that you keep raising up mighty, conservative voices.

MASTERS: It's a nod to the importance evangelical Christians play in Republican politics here - something the Florida governor hopes to capitalize on. He's seen as Donald Trump's biggest rival in the race for the nomination right now. DeSantis made a reference to the last time he was here and made an unscheduled stop in Des Moines the same day Trump canceled an outdoor rally there because of a severe weather threat.

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RON DESANTIS: The weather was so nice that we felt we just had to come back and pay everyone a little bit of a visit. We appreciated that.

MASTERS: But DeSantis wasn't done criticizing the former president, shooting back after Trump said he failed in the face of COVID.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DESANTIS: He's attacking me over some of these disagreements, but I think he's doing it in a way that the voters are going to side with me. I mean, we talked about COVID. Do you want Cuomo, or do you want free Florida? If we just decided the caucuses on that, I would be happy with that verdict by Iowa voters.

MASTERS: He's referencing former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. As DeSantis made five stops across the state, his staff and supporters greeted rallygoers with pamphlets.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Would you like to commit to caucus for the governor?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Not right now. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Not yet? No worries. Thank you for coming.

MASTERS: Kristine and Frank Fasano came out to see DeSantis in a small town.

KRISTINE FASANO: I'd like to get more details on his platform - on how he's going to try to accomplish some of these things.

FRANK FASANO: I think Ron's a sharp young man. He'd do a great job, but I think...

K FASANO: Age is an issue...

F FASANO: Yep.

K FASANO: ...For me with the president - the ex-president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Hello, everybody.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Hello.

TRUMP: This is a big crowd. This was supposed to be just a little gathering. There's...

(LAUGHTER)

TRUMP: ...Hundreds and hundreds of...

MASTERS: That's Trump walking into the Machine Shed restaurant in suburban Des Moines on Thursday. Before greeting supporters, he immediately jabbed back at DeSantis over the Florida governor's comments that a nominee needs to be able to serve two terms.

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TRUMP: We don't need eight years. We need five months...

(LAUGHTER)

TRUMP: ...Or less. Thank you very much.

MASTERS: After so many years of mass-scale rallies, Trump is taking things down a notch on this trip with a more intimate slate of events, but the rhetoric is still dialed up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Ladies and gentlemen, the next president of the United States.

TRUMP: There's no way I can lose Iowa. Let's see what happens. I don't think so. We'd have to do some really bad things to lose at this point.

MASTERS: That's the first stop as he takes a more personal approach to campaigning. He meets privately for lunch with local pastors. Then he hangs out with campaign volunteers.

TRUMP: So they said, sir, we can get you in and out quickly, or you could stay for pizza with your friends. I said, I'll stay for pizza with my friends.

(CHEERING)

MASTERS: But in typical Trump style, he continues to push falsehoods about the outcome of the 2020 election, and his trip ends with a televised Fox News town hall. Two days later, the other Republicans running wanted to show Iowans the race is on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLE REVVING)

MASTERS: The setting? Senator Joni Ernst's Roast and Ride. The fundraiser's proceeds go to a veterans group. It features a motorcycle ride, barbecue, and lots of speeches from politicians. Trump didn't make it, but his former vice president did.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONI ERNST: Hello, welcome. Vice president, it's so good to have you here. Karen, oh, my God.

MASTERS: Mike Pence is planning on announcing his bid here next week which he talked about as he mounted a Harley.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE PENCE: We have a very clear sense of that calling now. And we thought Iowa would be the best place to make our intentions known.

MASTERS: Pence was the only one to ride with Senator Ernst to the state fairgrounds. That's where all the speeches and food were served.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERNST: So I am going to close out because I want to get to the meat of this day. We've got a lot of great folks that are here ready to speak to you.

MASTERS: The hundreds of Iowans gathered heard from South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson. DeSantis was there, too. When former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley took the mic, she reminded Iowans that their choice has an outsized impact, so make it carefully.

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NIKKI HALEY: It's going to take a lot of courage - courage for me to run and courage for every one of you to know - don't complain about what you get in a general if you don't play in this caucus because it matters.

MASTERS: Likely, Iowa caucusgoers have months to make a decision before they commit. Before that, though, the candidates will take to the national debate stage - or at least the ones who can meet RNC criteria, which may also help Iowans winnow the field.

RASCOE: And Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio joins us now from Des Moines with a little more context. Hey, Clay.

MASTERS: Good morning.

RASCOE: So you've covered a lot of these big election cycles in Iowa. How's this one compared to the others?

MASTERS: Well, these cattle calls, like the Roast and Ride, are nothing new. Democrats and Republicans do them. It's a chance for a friendly audience to hear predominantly unknown candidates introduce themselves as they're making up their minds. Now, the first Roast and Ride was back in 2015 after Senator Ernst was first elected, and the Republican making headlines back then was former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Remember that guy? So...

RASCOE: OK, OK.

MASTERS: It's a good reminder of how early we are in this process.

RASCOE: We heard from a couple Iowa voters in your story there. What else are they telling you?

MASTERS: Well, the people who came to see Trump this week that I spoke to clearly seem to have their minds made up. But I've had a lot of voters at these other gatherings tell me they like Trump's policies, but they're open to a change, and there's still a lot of time. Or they actively want somebody new. And I remember Iowa voters saying they were trying to make up their minds, like, four years ago when the Democrats were barnstorming the state, and that went up until the very last weeks of campaigning. So Iowans who caucus are very used to this role in the political process, and they are very comfortable listening to every candidate multiple times before publicly committing to them.

RASCOE: Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters, thank you so much.

MASTERS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter. He was part of a team of member station political reporters who covered the 2016 presidential race for NPR. He also covers environmental issues.