DES MOINES (DTN) -- In the first big Republican presidential primary kickoff event on Saturday, there was a great deal of attention on "wokeness" and the southern border, along with China and energy security, but little discussion by GOP contenders about agriculture.
Eight candidates took part in Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst's "Roast and Ride" rally, meant to combine a motorcycle ride and political rally, though former Vice President Mike Pence was the only candidate to join Ernst and others to ride across Des Moines as part of the event. Hundreds of GOP backers gathered at the Iowa State Fairgrounds to meet and hear the candidates in one of the first summer events as politicking ramps up between now and the Iowa Caucuses next January.
Ernst made it clear Democrats have dropped Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucus status, but the GOP is maintaining its place in the state, which has become more Republican in recent elections. "Biden and Democrats have left us behind," Ernst said.
Along with Pence were Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis; Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina; former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley; former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson; former radio show host Larry Elder; businessmen Vivek Ramaswamy; and businessman Perry Johnson.
Dennis Friest, a farmer from Radcliffe, Iowa, and president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association, was manning a trailer to educate GOP presidential candidates and their supporters about the benefits of ethanol. Friest agreed Iowa farmers support Republicans and are fans of the candidate not in attendance -- former President Donald Trump.
"There is a lot of concern among farmers about government regulations," Friest said. "And that's why they tend to be so strongly part of the Republican base because they are fighting EPA all of the time. And the regulations are killing us, right? Trump stepped up there and did some nice things on regulations, but he also stepped up on some trade issues."
Friest said others in the Iowa Corn Growers leadership had gotten the chance to talk to DeSantis on some agricultural issues in the past week.
Candidates avoided criticizing Trump, who did not attend but had a group of supporters with MAGA hats and staff handing out bumper stickers and putting fliers on vehicles declaring he "did more for Iowa than any administration in history!"
Republicans focused their jabs at President Joe Biden, the federal administrative state and "woke-isms."
DeSantis, who spoke last among the candidates, said his presidency would attack the "woke-mind virus" and he would go after wokeness in government agencies, the military and private companies.
"We will never, ever surrender to the woke mob," DeSantis said.
Early polling has shown Trump with a strong lead over DeSantis and other candidates trailing after that. DeSantis did allude to Trump's influence over the GOP as a negative.
"We need to dispense with the culture of losing that has beset the Republican party in recent years. Iowa shows it can be done. Florida shows it can be done. We had red waves in 2020 while the rest of the country, not so much."
Hutchinson highlighted his state's agricultural production. "Coming from Arkansas, we depend on agriculture," the former governor said. Speaking to DTN, Hutchinson said, "I understand the importance of educating Americans about the importance of ag. I understand the importance of research and technology and opening up foreign markets to our products.
Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina and Trump's ambassador to the United Nations, mentioned she grew up playing on farms and her godparents were dairy farmers.
"For all of you farmers out there you are doing God's work, not just for Iowa but for all of us around the country," Haley said.
At least some candidates openly called for "decoupling" the U.S. economy from China. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said, "They have become an economic adversary to the United States of America and it is time for us to uncouple our economy by growing jobs here at home and building these here at home."
Ramaswamy, a 37-year-old businessman, also said the U.S. needs to break away from China. "We are done."
Ramaswamy said Chinese residents or businesses would not be allowed to buy land in the U.S. DeSantis later repeated that message, noting he signed legislation in Florida. "We have prohibited land purchase by the Chinese Communist Party," DeSantis said.
None of the candidates discussed how that decoupling would impact U.S. agricultural trade with China, the largest buyer of U.S. agricultural products at $36.4 billion last year.
Another repeated theme from candidates was the southern border. Nearly all of them called for finishing a wall.
DeSantis said he would "shut the border down, build a wall and hold cartels accountable" for drugs such as fentanyl.
Scott said he would spent $10 billion to finish a wall on the southern border and then another $5 billion to man the border.
Haley called for national mandatory E-Verify program for businesses to stop the hiring of illegal immigrants. She also called for "defunding" sanctuary cities. "Instead of catch and release, we will start catch and deport."
DeSantis in May signed a new state law that requires any employer with 25 or more employees to use E-Verify to check employees. The law also increases penalties for companies that employ people in the country illegally.
Ramaswamy said, "I will use the military to secure our southern border."
Ernst was the first to criticize Biden for his administration's push on electric vehicles, but the candidates hammered on it as well. Pence, touting the first three years of the Trump presidency, said they "unleashed American energy" and made the U.S. a net exporter of energy again.
Hutchinson and Scott each referenced biofuels and the Renewable Fuels Standard. "That is part of the mix as well," Hutchinson said.
"We need a pro-growth energy policy in this country," Hutchinson said.
CUTTING FEDERAL SPENDING
GOP candidates said they would cut federal spending by greater margins than the reductions achieved in the debt-limit bill passed by Congress last week. Haley said the country needs to "quit borrowing," and "cut off the credit cards."
"Cut the spending, cut the debt, cut the earmarks that never should have come back," Haley said. "No more debt once and for all."
Perry Johnson, a businessman from Michigan considered a longshot to make the debate panels, said he would freeze the budget and cut 2% from the discretionary budget. Johnson and others also called for savings by eliminating the Department of Education. Johnson also questioned the $113 billion to Ukraine "when we are going broke," he said.
"How many here are in favor of Washington spending less money?" Johnson said to a crowd with a significant percentage of people on Social Security and Medicare.
Hutchinson also suggested making changes to allow people ages 62-67 to continue working "without penalties for Social Security."
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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