GOP Suitors Woo Iowa With Bikes, Barbeque And Barnstorming : It's All Politics Iowa's freshman Sen. Joni Ernst hosted a herd of potential Republican presidential candidates for her first-ever Roast and Ride event, asserting herself as a force in presidential politics.

GOP Suitors Woo Iowa With Bikes, Barbeque And Barnstorming

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, what's a presidential campaign without some candidates on motorbikes? Some of the GOP hopefuls were in Iowa farm country this weekend for a fundraiser involving a motorcycle ride followed by a barbecue, aptly titled Roast and Ride. The event was organized by first-term Republican Senator Joni Ernst. As Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters reports, the political newcomer is making herself a force in presidential politics.

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JONI ERNST: Thank you, thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Senator, hi.

ERNST: How are you?

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: It's not often you get to see a U.S. senator decked out in a leather biker vest, drinking a monster energy drink. It was 10:30 Saturday morning, and Ernst was greeting hundreds of bikers in the parking lot of a Harley-Davidson dealer in Des Moines. She joked with the press about Florida's senator and presidential candidate Marco Rubio turning her down for a ride on the back of her motorcycle.

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ERNST: (Laughter). Well, I'm not sure. I do know that he will be up in Boone today greeting all of our visitors. But it would've been kind of fun though, wouldn't it (laughter)?

MASTERS: Only two of the presidential hopefuls rode motorcycles. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry led his own motorcade from - get this - Perry, Iowa. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker rode with Ernst. He has not officially announced he's running for president, but has been spending a lot of time in Iowa.

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SCOTT WALKER: When Joni told me in January she was going to do this, I thought, well, heck, I'll - you know, that's easy. I'll do that in a heartbeat, right?

MASTERS: Then they were off.

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MASTERS: After finishing the 38-mile ride to the small town of Boone, it was time for the roast. Connie Rueter waited in line for barbecue sandwiches, baked beans and potato salad.

CONNIE RUETER: It was amazing to see that many consecutive bikes and people along the way with their flags waving. And it just gave me a good spirit of, you know, USA and freedom. And, you know, it was just really great.

MASTERS: Swap the pork for steak and Republicans for Democrats, and you could be at Tom Harkin's steak fry. Ernst replaced Harkin in the Senate this year, but she's copying his playbook with a fundraiser designed to draw presidential candidates. Former state GOP chair Matt Strawn says Ernst is showing the candidates a slice of Iowa.

MATT STRAWN: We're not in a ballroom with $100-a-plate dinners. You know, I'm in my boots and jeans as we're talking here. My kids are here. We're eating barbecue. You know, we're having fun.

MASTERS: There was a full buffet of Republican candidates to sample - former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and, of course, lots of speeches. Here's South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham.

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LINDSEY GRAHAM: Hillary Clinton couldn't be here today (laughter) 'cause there's a crowd that may ask her a question.

MASTERS: As the Roast and Ride drew to a close, Ernst appeared to relish her roles as host and a new political force from an important state.

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ERNST: Travel safely as you're heading home this afternoon. Make sure that as these candidates come back through, you're giving them a very warm Iowa welcome.

MASTERS: With eight more months of caucus campaigning left, Republican presidential hopefuls will likely be open to plenty more invites from this freshman senator. For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Boone, Iowa.

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