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The political atmosphere of this year's state fair in Iowa


Attending the Iowa State Fair has been a presidential rite of passage for decades. The first in the nation, Iowa caucuses will be crucial for any candidate working to siphon away Donald Trump's lead in Republican polls. But this year's fair comes as Trump faces a number of indictments. Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters reports.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Most people don't go to the Iowa State Fair to see politicians. It's the food, the livestock, the concerts at the grandstand. Jessica Manuel just moved here from Arizona and likes the horticulture exhibits.

JESSICA MANUEL: Flowers - those are way beautiful. All those huge fruits, vegetables that people - we don't have that in Arizona. So it's really cool to see that stuff.

MASTERS: She and her partner, Chris Lorey, are standing near the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines, watching the parade that kicks things off. Lorey is from Iowa and just moved back. He says the politicking at the fair is pretty ridiculous.

CHRIS LOREY: It's a rare opportunity because they, like, play like they're regular people. Grab a corndog, and you're one of us.

MASTERS: The GOP candidates will have plenty of time to sample fried food as the caucuses stand to have an outsized role in 2024. Iowa's Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, is welcoming all of them here.

KIM REYNOLDS: We need to be doing (inaudible), too. I mean, we're going to take care of each other.

MASTERS: On the opening day, she flips pork burgers at a grill with North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum. She's invited all of them to sit with her for public interviews she's dubbed Fairside Chats. Reynolds has appeared with all the candidates this year, and she's remaining neutral for now.

REYNOLDS: When I'm inviting them here and asking them to go to all 99 counties, get out in the state, talk to Iowans, they're not going to do that if they feel like, you know, they've - they don't have a fair shot at it.

MASTERS: Former President Donald Trump is not doing that. He has not spent nearly as much time in the state as the others and has expressed frustration with Reynolds for not endorsing him. Yet when it comes to Trump's mounting indictments, including for trying to overturn his 2020 election loss, Reynolds repeats a similar Republican refrain that won't insult his loyal base.

REYNOLDS: I think we have a weaponized Department of Justice and IRS and FBI, and I think we're seeing that. I think Americans feel that there is a two-tier justice system.

MASTERS: The charges were recommended by a grand jury of Trump's peers in Florida and Washington. And for all the traditional aspects of the fair, there's never been one with a presidential frontrunner who's been indicted multiple times. Trump's challengers have mostly avoided calling him out directly in Iowa. He still has a lot of support among Republicans in the state. His former vice president, Mike Pence, didn't mention him while taking a question about his role on January 6.

MIKE PENCE: Well, that's a fair question. Look. Come on, people. That's why I came.

MASTERS: Pence told the crowd he obeyed what the Constitution requires, despite pressure from Trump and his attorneys. After his speech, he told reporters he hopes the former president shows up at the first Republican debate later this month in Milwaukee.

PENCE: People ask me sometimes what I think about maybe debating Donald Trump. I tell people I've debated Donald Trump a thousand times, just never with the cameras on.

MASTERS: Pence and many of the candidates are spending multiple days at the fair, hoping to get the attention of Iowans like Jill Crain. She stumbled upon the end of his speech and liked what she heard. She's not a fan of Trump and wants to find a candidate that can end the divisiveness in politics.

JILL CRAIN: I just would love to see candidates that are working very hard to change the whole environment of politics right now. I grew up in a Republican household, loved - I thought it was a great party, but I can't stand it right now, to be honest.

MASTERS: But the former president's grip on the party remained clear as Pence strolled the concourse following his speech. Several fairgoers decked out in Trump gear were shouting at him.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Pence is a traitor.

MASTERS: The top Republican candidates will be here tomorrow. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis will appear with Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds. And with another potential indictment looming, Trump will also be here, looking to overshadow his rivals who are spending more of their time in Iowa. For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Clay Masters
Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter. He was part of a team of member station political reporters who covered the 2016 presidential race for NPR. He also covers environmental issues.
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