DES MOINES, Iowa -- Seven Republican presidential hopefuls came to Iowa on Saturday for an unusual political event -- half-motorcycle ride, half-pork roast, the full-day gathering was a chance for the candidates to start their engines in the all-important early caucus state.
The day was also major moment for Sen. Joni Ernst, the freshman U.S. senator from Iowa who rode into power with a campaign ad that touted her experiencing castrating hogs. She organized the inaugural “Roast and Ride,” which in addition to serving as a testing ground for presidential candidates, doubled as a fundraiser for the senator’s political action committee.
The candidates and potential candidates on hand for the event were: Former neurosurgeon and conservative activist Ben Carson, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. All have formally announced their presidential bids except Walker.
Ernst, a Harley-Davidson enthusiast, started the day with a 39-mile motorcycle ride from Des Moines to Boone, Iowa that took roughly 300 riders past Camp Dodge where Ernst serves as a Lt. Colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard. They arrived at the Central Iowa Expo (also the venue for the Iowa Straw Poll this August) where a pork roast and outdoor games (think cornhole and horseshoes) awaited.
ABC's Josh Haskell catches up with Sen. Joni Ernst at the "Roast and Ride":
All the hopefuls addressed voters at the pork roast portion of the event in was Iowa’s version of presidential speed dating. Ernst gave each candidate just eight minutes to speak.
"She rocks," Graham said of Ernst. "You did the country a good thing by sending her to Washington. She promised to make people squeal -- they’re squealing. Particularly the men. When she talks we all listen. The thing I like the most about Sen. Ernst is when she talks about defending the nation, she knows what the hell she’s talking about. When she talks about boots on the ground, she’s had her boots on the ground."
Walker also paid homage to Ernst -- while plugging his own presidential ambitions.
"I love a senator who knows how to castrate pig, ride a hog and cut the pork from Washington, DC," he said. "Now wouldn’t it be nice if she had an ally in the White House to help get the job done?”
And though the GOP candidates are battling among themselves for the Republican nomination, some also took their turn jabbing Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
“There was recently a poll, earlier this week, that asked Americans who they most wanted to see debate Hillary Clinton. I was gratified that I won that poll. I really would be tempted on that general election debate stage to ask Hillary Clinton if she’s ever ridden on a John Deere tractor. I know she’s had a few photos ops. But the truth is, I think what we need to ask Hillary Clinton now is, ‘Mrs. Clinton, what else don’t we know?’”
Rubio added: "I don't make $11 million a year giving speeches to special interests. And I don't have a family foundation that's raised $2 billion -- a lot of it from foreign interests. But my wife and I work to ensure that we have enough money to send our kids to a Christian education at a private school, and we have a mortgage we pay every month. But you know what my biggest debt is? It's not to a bank. It's to the United States of America."
Only Walker and Perry actually hopped on a bike on Saturday.
Perry, who officially announced his presidential candidacy last week, took his own route to Boone, starting out, appropriately, in the town of Perry, Iowa. The newly-minted candidate rode a motorcycle that belongs to Taylor Morris, a Navy explosive ordinance disposal technician from Cedar Falls, Iowa who was injured while serving in Afghanistan.
A recent Bloomberg Politics-Des Moines Register Iowa Poll gives Walker an early lead here. The Wisconsin governor pulls in 17 percent support, followed by Rand Paul and Carson (10 percent each). Jeb Bush and Huckabee both garner 9 percent. Rubio and Rick Santorum each get 6 percent.
Besides delivering the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address earlier this year, Ernst has kept a relatively low public profile during her freshman year in the Senate. And while the candidates who turned out for her “Roast and Ride” might be coveting her seal of approval ahead of the caucuses, which are set for early February, they are all likely out of luck. Ernst has already said she won’t be endorsing ahead of the contest.
ABC's Josh Haskell goes behind the scenes at the "Roast and Ride":