As the politicians and Republican Party officials tossed out the red meat on Saturday at an event at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, Wayne Johnson, a 70-year-old farmer and financial consultant from Forest City, Iowa, had some quieter thoughts about the next president he would like to see.
The violence in American schools and public places, the tribalism in politics, the negativity of the nation’s elected officials — “If a leader can take us in a positive direction, people will follow,” Mr. Johnson said.
His wife, Gloria, jumped in. “I really don’t care about people’s sexual habits and I don’t want to hear about it all the time,” she said with exasperation about her party’s focus on social issues like transgender care and L.G.B.T.Q. rights. “Politicians are taking positions on ‘woke’ that have more to do with sex than promoting our country in a positive way.”
The event, called “Roast and Ride” — an annual motorcycle and barbecue-infused political rally sponsored by Iowa’s junior Republican senator, Joni Ernst — laid bare divisions in the party, with some attendees focusing on pocketbook issues and tone and others looking for a candidate who will take on Democrats on a social and cultural front.
Saturday’s gathering featured eight presidential hopefuls, prominent and obscure, declared and undeclared. Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor; Mike Pence, the former vice president who will formally announce his run on Wednesday; Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina; and Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador, were there, along with hundreds of Iowa Republicans who will cast the first ballots of the Republican nomination season in February.
The politicians had their pitches, waltzing across a stage festooned with flags and stacked with hay bales to rail against “deep state” bureaucrats, “woke” corporations, and liberals indoctrinating and confusing America’s children. Their biggest target, unsurprisingly, was President Biden, for all manner of failings, from Afghanistan and the southern border to transgender athletes competing in women’s sports.
For the presidential hopefuls, winning over Iowa Republicans — with their strong religious bent and tradition of political engagement — is the imperative first step toward wresting the G.O.P. from the front-runner for the nomination, Donald J. Trump, the one major candidate who did not make the trip on Saturday.
The candidates in attendance tried to differentiate themselves from one another.
The next president, Mr. Pence assured, will “hear from heaven, and he’ll heal this land.”
Ms. Haley agreed, “We’ve got to leave the baggage and the negativity behind.”
Mr. DeSantis chose a culture-war analogy, evoking Winston Churchill, who once vowed to fight Nazi Germany on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields and in the streets. Mr. DeSantis promised on Saturday to fight “woke ideology” in the halls of Congress and in the boardrooms, saying, “We will never surrender.”
Iowa has moved more decisively from swing state to deep red than perhaps any other state, voting for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, only to shift firmly to Mr. Trump in 2016 and 2020. Mr. Trump’s eight-percentage-point victory there in 2020 nearly matched Mr. Obama’s nine-point margin 12 years before.
But voters in the audience did not all have the same priorities, interests or solutions. A Republican presidential beauty pageant eight months before the Iowa caucuses will attract only the most ardent partisans, and candidates understand they are reaching out to the edges of their party, not the center.
Many voters expressed concern about the economy, especially inflation, a subject most of the presidential candidates barely touched. Ron Greiner, a health insurance salesman from Omaha, was incensed that none of the candidates mentioned the Affordable Care Act — once a reliable target of Republican attacks — or health care at all.
And while Ms. Johnson might be tired of all the talk of transgender issues, others leaped to their feet when Ms. Haley called transgender women competing in women’s sports “the biggest women’s issue of our day.”
Jackson Cox, a 17-year-old who will vote for the first time in 2024, drove from Albert Lea, Minn., to hear the candidates he will choose from. Top of mind for him are the taxpayer dollars he said were being wasted before they reach American troops fighting for freedom in Ukraine — never mind that no U.S. troops are fighting in Ukraine. Contrary to the conservative consensus, he argued that the United States should be doing more, not less, for Ukraine.
Diane Bebb, 66, of New London, Iowa, fretted over inflation, gas and food prices, and the “help wanted signs” for jobs that seemingly could not be filled.
“We could start producing oil again, to help the economy and get prices down,” she said, though she wasn’t sure how more oil exploration would fill all those job openings.
Her twin sister, Dione Cornelius of Bagley, Iowa, jumped in to reject the idea of backfilling the labor force with more immigrants.
“They’re taking all the benefits, free health care and all that kind of stuff,” Ms. Cornelius protested.
Mike Clark, 74, a semiretired acoustics consultant, worried that “the rule of law is disappearing,” not so much because of crime in the nation’s streets but because of an out-of-control F.B.I. and Justice Department pursuing Mr. Trump.
“Big push for the one-world government, that’s what worries me most,” Mr. Clark said, referring to a common subject of conspiracy theories. He recommended the book “The Creature From Jekyll Island,” which pushes conspiracy theories about the founding of the Federal Reserve.
Amid that cornucopia of concerns, the one issue that seemed to be most broadly felt was the porous border with Mexico. “What are we going to do with all these people?” asked Karen Clark, 81, of Des Moines.
Beyond that, Iowa conservatives seemed torn. They conceded that unemployment was so low that jobs in the state weren’t being filled, but asserted that the economy was a wreck.
Bill Dunton, 68, said he had been coming from his home in Toledo, Iowa, to Ms. Ernst’s Roast and Ride on his Harley-Davidson for six years. His credit card debt was just about paid off, he said with relief. He was particularly proud of the Chevy Silverado High Country diesel pickup truck he bought in 2021, which “was made for pulling.”
But, he said with conviction, “the economy has gone” to pieces, using an expletive to describe it.
Mr. Dunton also spoke of his ordeal with Covid-19, hospitalized for 28 days on huge tanks of supplemental oxygen, which he was still tethered to a month and a half after his discharge. Yet, he added, “I think we way overreacted” to the pandemic.
Responding to the multiplicity of maladies on Iowans’ minds will present a challenge for the presidential hopefuls. But after the program, Mr. Johnson said he was impressed with his choices, and he will have time to watch the race unfold.
“It’s a long run,” he noted. “Time has a way of revealing truth.”
Jonathan Weisman is a Chicago-based political correspondent, veteran journalist and author of the novel “No. 4 Imperial Lane” and the nonfiction book “(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump.” His career in journalism stretches back 30 years. @jonathanweisman