DES MOINES, Iowa – Nearly every Republican candidate for president is coming to the Iowa State Fairgrounds this weekend, with cameras and curious voters watching everything they do — every pork chop flip, every selfie, every heckle, every bite of a cornmeal-wrapped bratwurst.
Here’s what we’re watching while we’re there.
Shelby's and David's View
1. Will Trump swoop in and dominate?
Trump isn’t participating in any official Iowa State Fair political events — hosted by the Des Moines Register, Gov. Kim Reynolds, and Sen. Joni Ernst — but he will be making an appearance at the fairgrounds on Saturday.
The goal: Roll up with an entourage of Republican congressmen, soak up all the attention, and make the other candidates (including Ron DeSantis) look irrelevant. One well-sourced Republican said Trump wants to be carted from place to place, rather than do the standard walkaround — and maybe buy a round of pork chops for people along the way.
His fans are already making themselves known. Mike Pence fielded a trolling question — “How’s life going since Tucker Carlson ruined your career?” — from a staffer for Kari Lake, who will be rallying for Trump here on Saturday. Supporters in Trump gear (including “Back to Back Iowa Champs” hats) heckled Pence, then held an impromptu press conference as the ex-vice president did radio interviews.
What does Trump have to worry about? Iowa Republicans swear there’s a significant contingent of soft Trump supporters who still harbor doubts about his electability. If they exist, they’ll be easy enough for reporters to spot — the event is a rare political cattle call where the crowds aren’t just hardcore conservative activists.
2. Can Ron DeSantis be normal?
Candidates use the event to show their relatable side, and nobody is under more pressure to do so than DeSantis. The Florida governor’s scaled-down, more accessible campaign is being watched closely for mistakes, often frivolous ones; a video from one visit to a county fair last month, when he told a child that his frosty drink had “a lot of sugar,” got millions of views. It may not be fair, but it is part of the fair. DeSantis will sit down with Reynolds on Saturday morning, then be followed by reporters and voters — remember the Pence hecklers — who want to ask him questions and see his retail campaigning up close.
3. Will an underdog bark?
Vivek Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley, and Tim Scott are all trying to take advantage of DeSantis’s recent poll slump; all of them, say Iowa Republicans, have an easier way with crowds. Ramaswamy and Haley will be competing for attention with DeSantis and Trump on Saturday — unlike either man, they’re speaking at the Register’s soapbox, where voters are encouraged to ask unscripted questions. Scott will stop by the fair on Tuesday, by which point conservatives who harbor doubts about Trump will see whether anyone is generating real enthusiasm.
4. Who will Biden’s challengers connect with?
Both Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Marianne Williamson will be at the fair on Saturday, even though the national Democratic party has kicked Iowa’s caucus down its primary calendar. Each will get access to the largest crowds of voters and gawkers they’ve seen all year — with no Joe Biden to distract them. We’ve already spotted some homemade pro-Kennedy gear here, and Republicans are relishing any attention that he gets. So are Democrats, who think that the presidential scion becomes less of a problem for Biden whenever he starts talking.