As the curtain comes down on the Iowa Fair’s political hijinks this weekend, judges will have plenty of material to choose from in determining which of the presidential candidates made the biggest splash and won over the crowds – and which would have been better off joining Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky in skipping the event altogether.
The Des Moines Register, the premier chronicler of the quadrennial political event, explained this week that the Iowa State Fair “is mostly about flash and spectacle.” Presidential candidates are expected to make fools of themselves riding tractors, oohing and aahing over a 1,000-pound boar, admiring a butter cow, chowing down on deep fried pork chops and Snicker’s bars, and standing on a soapbox 20 minutes at a time as they make their pitches to voters.
Hillary Clinton flipped pork chops on a grill, admired the pantsuits of many of the farm wives, gamely struggled to look enthusiastic about patting livestock, and ran the gauntlet of reporters desperately seeking a comment on her email woes.
As the candidates sought to capture the hearts and minds of the Iowans who flocked to the fairgrounds last week, it was hard to top billionaire businessman and TV showman Donald Trump, who swooped down last Saturday in his helicopter. He landed in the parking lot of a baseball field dressed in a blue blazer, red campaign cap and white shoes, charming the crowd and offering kids rides in his helicopter.
Trump, a grandfather at age 69, said he loves kids. And when a nine-year old boy looking for a helicopter ride asked, “Mr. Trump, are you Batman?”, the usually hard-boiled businessman replied: “I am Batman.”
Some of the Republican and Democratic candidates were charming and funny, some seemed a tad desperate in trying to keep up with Trump, and a few were downright nasty.
Here are five highlights and lowlights from the Iowa fair:
1. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) – We might as well start with the lowest of lowlights. The smooth-talking Texan, who has managed to offend most of his Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill, insulted former Democratic President Jimmy Carter during a speech at the fair Friday -- a day after the 90-year-old Carter announced that he has brain cancer.
During his soapbox remarks, Cruz drew parallels between the Obama and Carter administrations, saying that both had the “same failed domestic policy, same misery, stagnation and malaise, same feckless and naïve foreign policy,” according to NBC News. When asked about the poor timing of his remarks, Cruz said, “We can always have a discussion about public policy.”
Cruz, as you may recall, made a joke about Vice President Joe Biden while Biden was mourning his 46-year-old son, Beau, who had recently died of brain cancer. Cruz later apologized.
2. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) – The 44-year Florida native likes to highlight his youthfulness in contrast to Trump and former Florida governor Jeb Bush, so it seemed natural that he would toss around a football at the fairgrounds, just like the Kennedys did many years ago. Unfortunately, he beaned four-year-old Brody Dill in an incident that was caught on camera and quickly went viral. But no real harm was done. And Dill responded in a video posted to Twitter by his uncle: “Hey, Rubio! When you get back to Iowa, I’ll be ready for you, Rubio.”
3. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker – The typically hard-charging, indefatigable Republican governor was so exhausted by the fair last Monday that he “misspoke” on a critical immigration issue. Struggling to pull his campaign out of a tailspin in Iowa, Walker appeared to embrace Trump’s highly controversial plan to end birthright citizenship under the 14th Amendment for children born of illegal immigrants in this country.
Walker told “Fox and Friends” host Steve Doocy that Trump’s immigration plan was “very similar” to a proposal he previously supported, and went on to tell MSNBC News reporter Kacie Hunt that the United States should “absolutely” end birthright citizenship going forward. But Walker must have stunned some of his supporters and donors when he sharply pulled back on his stance. Walker told CNBC correspondent John Harwood that he had been tired from long hours of interviews when he made the statement, and that “I’m not taking a position on it one way or the other.”
4. Ohio Gov. John Kasich – The Republican governor who is trying to be a “kinder, gentler” conservative was notable at the fair for his appetite – he reportedly ate three pork chops – and his introspection and sensitivity. While his rivals used the soapbox mostly to toot their own horns and spell out their platforms, Kasich spoke at length about his Christian values and reasons why man was put on this planet, The Des Moines Register reported.
“In the West, there seems to be an aggressive effort to find happiness. Because we all want to be happy,” Kasich said according to excerpts from his speech. “But I have to suggest to you that we as human beings that represent the Western ethic and the Western tradition, that we need to realize that we have a purpose here on Earth. Our purpose relates to healing those who live in our world, and I believe that our purpose involves justice in this world.”
While Kasich argued that the government’s role was to help Americans, as it did in expanding Medicaid to millions of uninsured people under Obamacare, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry offered a sharply contrasting view – that the government needs to get out of the way of Americans. “We’re not going to do it unless you deconstruct that crap that’s going on in Washington, D.C.,” Perry said.
5. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont – The often dour, self-described socialist who is challenging Clinton for the Democratic nomination, is typically all business when speaking to crowds about the evils of the “billionaire class” and the need to bolster the living standards of the middle class. But when a helicopter flew overhead during Sanders’ speech at the fair, he was quick to make a quip that pleased the crowd.
"There's Donald Trump. What can we do?" Sanders said. "I apologize. We left the helicopter at home."