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Republican presidential contenders face off in Iowa

June 6, 2015

BOONE, Iowa (AP) — Several Republican presidential contenders fought for an edge Saturday among motorcycles, puppies, war heroes and roasted pork, having swapped dark suits for blue jeans to meet Iowans eight months before they cast the first votes of the 2016 primary campaign.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry cruised to an afternoon presidential forum on Harley-Davidson motorcycles, leading separate rides of hundreds — many military veterans among them — as their Republican competitors chatted up would-be supporters over barbecue and potato salad.

Just two months before the first nationally televised debate, Walker is expected to announce his candidacy in the coming weeks. Perry launched his presidential bid on Thursday. The Saturday attendees included recently declared candidates Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former tech executive Carly Fiorina.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush skipped the Iowa event as he prepared to embark Tuesday on a six-day trip to Germany, Poland and Estonia — all stalwart U.S. allies — which he hopes will show he’s ready to step onto the world stage. he trip comes at a key time for Bush, the son and brother of former presidents, who will return a day before he officially announces his candidacy on June 15 at a rally in Miami.

Offering the nation’s first voting contest, Iowa is a critical state for candidates eager to stand out in a pack of more than a dozen prospective candidates.

“What a great day this morning was — out there on a Harley-Davidson, riding by the heartland of America,” Perry said. “That is what America’s all about. Living freedom, riding free.”

Perry’s ride raised money for the Puppy Jake Foundation, an Iowa-based group that trains service dogs for wounded veterans.

Walker, wearing a black “Born to Ride” T-shirt, said, “You’ve got to have fun on campaigns — or would-be campaigns — along the way.”

Beyond fun, candidates gained a valuable and unscripted opportunity to connect with voters at an event dubbed a “roast and ride” by its host, freshman Republican Sen. Joni Ernst. It served as a prime political gathering.

“I think in Iowa it is extremely important to do this,” said Ernst on retail politicking. “Iowans want to see their candidates, they want to reach out and shake their hand, they want to ask that question face to face.”

Indeed, before giving brief speeches from a stage flanked by bales of hay, the Republicans contenders crisscrossed the sprawling outdoor venue trailed by packs of curious voters. They sliced meat, posed for pictures and made small talk with anyone who would listen.

“I love ribs,” a smiling Walker said as he sliced into a freshly cooked rack of baby back ribs, noting that he proposed to his wife at a barbecue restaurant.

There was virtually no infighting among the Republicans, although a few poked jabs at Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has had few unscripted moments in her 2016 campaign so far.

Fiorina questioned whether Clinton had ever ridden on a John Deere tractor, as Fiorina did earlier in the day at another event.

“I know she had a few photo ops,” Fiorina said.

Perry, meanwhile, had a distinct focus on veterans on Saturday, the anniversary of the Allied D-Day invasion of Normandy during World War II.

“I’m on a stage here with some legitimate American heroes,” he said alongside former Navy SEALs and Taya Kyle, the widow of the slain soldier featured in the movie “American Sniper.”

Carson reflected upon his days practicing medicine. “I can’t tell you how many nights I spent in an operating room, operating on people who were riding motorcycles,” he said.

Rubio declined an invitation to ride on the back of Ernst’s bike.

“I look forward to doing it soon at some point,” Rubio said while being mobbed for photos. He added, “If we can get a jet ski ride going, I can take her.”

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