DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Amid plates of sliced pork, statement-making leather ensembles and piles of political T-shirts, eight Republican presidential hopefuls descended on Iowa to pitch themselves to voters and, in Mike Pence's case, hop on a motorcycle.
The former vice president and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis were among the White House contenders appearing at a rally at the state fairgrounds near Des Moines hosted by U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst. Her annual political event, the "Roast and Ride" -- a combination barbecue-rally and motorcycle ride -- kicks off a busy summer campaign season heading into the state's first-in-the-nation caucuses early next year.
Former President Donald Trump, the leading GOP presidential candidate, was notably absent after spending two days in the state this past week. He has largely avoided any events that have him sharing the stage with his 2024 rivals.
DeSantis, with his wife, Casey, and three young kids in tow, chatted with voters, gave out autographs and signed the Bible of a man who thanked DeSantis for "standing up to Disney." DeSantis just wrapped up his first week as an official candidate with a blitz of c ampaign stops across three early-voting states.
Casey DeSantis wore a black leather jacket in 86-degree weather with the words "Where Woke Goes to Die" and an outline of Florida on the back. It brought to mind comparisons to first lady Melania Trump, who famously sent a back-of-the-jacket message of her own in 2018 with a green-hooded jacket that read " I really don't care do u " as she departed the White House for a trip to visit migrant children in Texas.
Pence was the only White House hopeful who participated in a morning motorcycle ride for charity that is a staple of Ernst's annual "Roast and Ride" event. He wore jeans, boots and a leather vest with patches that said "Indiana" and messages supportive of the military.
The former Indiana governor, who has made frequent trips to Iowa over the past year, is expected to launch his long-anticipated campaign at an event in Des Moines on Wednesday.
"I'll be back a little later next week," Pence teased the crowd when he spoke later at the rally. "I don't have anything to announce today."
Earlier in the morning, before setting out on their motorcycle ride, Pence, standing with Ernst in the back of a pickup truck, again hinted at his looming candidacy.
"One of the reporters just asked me if we're showing up more in Iowa, what our lane would be. I said I'm more worried about the lane we're going to be staying in today," Pence joked.
The former vice president, wearing a white motorcycle helmet and a big grin, then rode off on a cobalt blue Harley Davidson. The group rode to the fairgrounds, where candidates gave speeches and chatted with barbecue-eating voters.
Other candidates speaking at the event included former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Michigan businessman Perry Johnson, author Vivek Ramaswamy and conservative talk radio host Larry Elder.
In their remarks, the candidates all tiptoed around mentions of the former president. Haley repeated a version of a line she has been using as a candidate that seems to allude to the 76-year-old Trump and his political career as replete with controversies.
"It's time for a new-generation leader. We've got to leave the baggage of the negativity behind," she said.
Off stage, however, several of the candidates did not hesitate to criticize Trump when asked about his social media post on Friday congratulating North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for his country's receiving a place on the executive board of the World Health Organization.
"I was surprised to see that. I mean, I think, one, Kim Jung Un is a murderous dictator," DeSantis said, when a reporter asked him about the post.
Pence, in an interview Saturday with Fox News, said: "Look, whether it is my former running mate or anyone else, no one should be praising the dictator in North Korea."
Hutchinson later tweeted: "We sanction leaders who oppress their people. We do not elevate them on the world stage."
In their speeches, the GOP candidates hit on similar conservative themes: criticizing President Joe Biden, promising tough policies on China and the U.S.-Mexico border and restrictions on abortion and gender-affirming policies.
The event had the feel of a large political fair, with about 1,000 people gathered to listen to the presidential prospects speaking in front of bales of hay in a building at the fairgrounds. Many of the campaigns set up tables full of stickers, T-shirts and drink can coolers.
Rows of dozens of shiny Harley Davidson motorcycles, of all colors, were parked neatly in the parking lot outside, along with campaign buses for Ramaswamy and the DeSantis super PAC. Nearby was what appeared to be a mechanical bull converted to resemble a motorcycle, surrounded by an inflatable landing area to catch thrown riders--all sponsored by the political super PAC Never Back Down, which supports DeSantis.
Marie Andres of Des Moines signed a form, distributed by Never Back Down, to pledge to caucus for DeSantis early next year.
"Trump did a great job, but in my opinion, too much drama," the 74-year-old said. She said she committed to DeSantis because she thinks he is "the best we're gonna get."
Jill Villalobos, 54, was buying a Haley T-shirt -- not for herself, but for her brother in Florida. The Altoona resident is planning to support Scott, whom she thinks can bring the GOP and the country together. "I really like his message," Villalobos said.
Victoria Ortiz had heard little of the candidates to date, and was at the event to learn more. She walked away with interest in DeSantis, Haley and Scott.
"I believe in the strong work ethic they promote. As a Hispanic, that's how I was raised," the 35-year-old rental property owner and manager from Des Moines' south side said. "I don't believe in giveaways. You have to work for it."
She said she didn't like Trump.
"His persona, pretty much, and the things he says, are not things I want my children to hear from a president," she said.
Ernst, along with Gov. Kim Reynolds, is one of the most sought-after Republican officials in the early stages of Iowa's leadoff caucuses.
The senator has pledged to remain neutral and not endorse during the caucus campaign.