Freshman Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) arrives at Big Barn Harley-Davidson for the start of her Roast and Ride event on June 6, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Scott Olson—Getty Images
June 6, 2015 6:27 PM EDT

The motorcycles rumbled down the road, their roar stretching over fields of ankle-high corn. The mile-long procession wound its way along county roads, up and down the rolling hills of central Iowa, ending an hour-long pilgrimage to Boone in a gravel lot at the base of grain silos.

Across the small parking lot, thousands of Iowa activists waited to hear from a few who donned leather jackets and helmets for the 39-mile processional to Boone for the inaugural Roast and Ride—a fresh addition to Iowa’s crowded political calendar organized by Sen. Joni Ernst.

At the edges, candidates roamed from one media interview to another, trailed by a phalanx of reporters looking to make sense of the circus-like atmosphere that sprouted up from the grassy field. Makeshift television studios were built and trucks fitted with satellite dishes on their roofs broadcast the event live. White plastic fencing kept enthusiasts from wandering too far from the main stage and extension cords powered movie-caliber lighting.

The event at times was a pastiche of Iowa and its traditions. Pork and beans served from tin bins onto Styrofoam lunch plates, bales of hay stacked as a backdrop on a Potemkin farm used to demonstrate equipment at the annual Farm Progress Show. Hundreds of participants arrived en masse; Ernst led a pack of 300 bikes to the farm grounds, with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker right behind her.

“I love a Senator who knows how to castrate a pig, ride a hog and cut the pork from Washington, D.C.,” said Walker, bedecked in a black Harley-Davidson T-shirt and ball cap.

It was Ernst’s political carnival and the White House hopefuls were her performers. One by one, they took their turn on stage, standing in front of a metal barn festooned with a sign proclaiming Iowa is the “Fields of Opportunities.” Shame was verboten and pandering was rewarded.

“We’re blessed as a party to have so many candidates. The Democrats couldn’t even come up with one,” joked Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. He bypassed the motorcycle arrival and instead met with activists in nearby Ames. But when it was his turn in Boone, he was ready to lavish praise on the Hawkeye state and its traditions.

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina didn’t grab a motorcycle. She spent the morning walking in the Scandinavian Days parade in nearby Story City. She hitched a ride on a John Deere tractor to catch up to her 4×4, from which volunteers were throwing candy, when talking to voters led her to fall behind the procession.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry organized his own motorcycle event to help wounded military members buy service dogs. But he made his way to Boone, wearing a black short-sleeved shirt and doing his best to look like he spends every weekend zooming across sun-baked Texas.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson declined to go full-tilt Iowa biker and stuck with blazers. Both continued to enjoy broad support.

The Boone Fire Department supplied a ladder truck to hoist a massive American flag. Corn hole and a bouncy-castle provided relief for the smattering of families. A sea of seniors sat in folding lawn chairs before the podium, which went unused by candidates who prefered the more casual hand-held microphone as they paced the stage flanked by an antique tractor.

But for all the love the candidates offered this state, there were clear signs that its preeminence was at risk. So far, no candidate has committed to participating in a lead-off straw poll, scheduled for Aug. 8 at the same location as Ernst’s confab. Its stand-out star from 2008, Huckabee, said he will skip the event. Others, too, were criticizing the daylong political rally that is on its last legs.

“It’s not a good return on investment for me. I’ll think I’m going to spend my money elsewhere,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said. “I’m going to show up, go to birthday parties, go to weddings, bar mitzvahs—wherever they will have me.”

Asked about the fate of the straw poll with so many candidates bailing, Iowa Republican Party Chairman Jeff Kaufmann told reporters Friday, “We’re going to focus on the caucuses.”

Walker, who is atop the heap in Iowa polling, hedged when asked if he would be the first to sign up for the straw poll. “Should we be a candidate, we will be in Iowa quite a bit. Whether or not the straw poll is part of that obviously remains to be seen,” said Walker, who rented a Harley-Davidson for the occasion and went full-hog on the kitsch.

Walker donned a pair of latex gloves as he sliced a rack of baby back ribs for journalists, regaling them with tales of his love of pork—including how he proposed to his wife at a Wisconsin smokehouse. “I love ribs and I love barbecue,” he said between bites, as the horde of photographers snapped away, documenting his adoration of pork.

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