DES MOINES, Iowa—Day two of the Iowa State Fair may have been the last stands for three 2024 Republican presidential aspirants struggling to gain traction in a 13-candidate field dominated by former President Donald Trump.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, Michigan magnate Perry Johnson, and conservative radio commentator Larry Elder, Jr., all took to the haystack-framed stage at the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox Aug. 12, the unassuming yet fabled off-midway venue where, for decades, favorites have seen ambitions dissolve like cotton candy in a dunk tank and where underdogs found their legs to become presidents.
“Did you think that Donald Trump would win?” Mr. Elder asked reporters at his post-stump gaggle under a tent in a shady grove after delivering his 20-minute spiel under a bright sun in 90-plus degree heat.
“You ever heard of Bill Clinton” before the little-known former Arkansas governor wowed the folks at the Iowa State Fair in 1991 and went on to be a two-term president?
“Obviously,” he continued, “things have a long way to go between now and the first vote, which is here in Iowa on Jan. 15. Anything can happen. Trust me. We have no idea.”
“I, for one, was absolutely certain that Jeb Bush was going to be the nominee in 2015. There was no question in my mind,” Mr. Johnson said after his soapbox speech.
“He had a brother who was president and a father who was president. He had $104 million in the coffers. He had an infrastructure that was unequaled. And he had all the political connections.”
But there’s not much time—10 days—to qualify for the first Republican National Committee (RNC) presidential candidate debate on Aug. 23 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
RNC debate qualifications require candidates to poll at least 1 percent in three national polls, or 1 percent in two national polls and 1 percent in one of the four early Republican primary states—Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina—by Aug. 21.
Debate qualifiers must also garner at least 40,000 “unique” donors, including at least 200 “unique” donors from 20 or more states and territories.
For Messrs. Elder, Johnson, and Suarez, as well as North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, Texas pastor and entrepreneur Ryan Binkley, and former Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), not getting on the debate stage could be the death knells for their long-shot campaigns.
“We’re doing everything we can do in the next 10 days,” Mr. Suarez said, including a raffle for tickets to watch soccer legend Lionel Messi play with his new team in Miami in exchange for campaign contributions as little as $1.
“We’ve overcome a lot, including not even being listed in many polls,” he said, echoing a complaint several “undercard” candidates have voiced.
“The people who I’m running against right now are national figures for many, many years. I’ve been a national figure for 60 days.”
Mr. Suarez is still short of the needed 40,000 contributors but has qualified in polling. He thanked Iowans for giving him his first polling qualification but hinted that if he can’t make the Aug. 23 debate stage, he may pull the plug on his campaign
“My job is to connect with people to meet that threshold. If you can’t meet the minimum thresholds, you shouldn’t be trying to take time and volume away from people that do,” he said during his post-stump gaggle.
“I don’t think candidates should just sort of linger around if they don’t have a credible path.”
Crunch Time Is Here
Mr. Johnson said he’s secured more than 52,000 individual donors but has not met the polling threshold. He was aiming to raise awareness of his ‘Restore the American Dream’ campaign with a rally, and concert at a Des Moines waterpark on Aug. 12 featuring the country duo Big & Rich.
“The bottom line is, I will be on that stage,” he said, so confident that he’ll qualify that he’s started debate prep with his team.
Mr. Elder said he was about 15,000 donors short of qualifying and has not met the polling qualifications but “at the pace” of swelling support, he’s confident he will be on stage in Milwaukee.
“If I make the first debate stage, I think it’ll resonate with a lot of people. I feel like I have a strong message and that people hear that message,” he said.
Among the issues Mr. Elder has raised in his campaign is “the need for school choice. The absolute crisis of fatherlessness. The need to fix the Constitution so that we can tie the budget to a certain percentage of the GDP as a way to get rid of the swamp.”
Several of his platform planks are issues—especially the “crisis of fatherlessness”—that other candidates aren’t talking about. He said his campaign is spotlighting things the nation’s leaders must address.
“In the unlikely event I’m not nominated, hopefully, the nominee will be speaking about this issue,” Mr. Elder said.
Day Three: Trump, DeSantis, RFK Jr.
Mr. Johnson touted his “Two Cent Plan” to cut the federal spending that has spurred inflation and put the nation $33 trillion in debt, which, he said, equates to $610 a month just interest for every family in America.
“The plan is very simple. We’re going to freeze the budget and cut 2 cents of every dollar of discretionary spending,” he said.
“I spent my entire life bringing quality and efficiency to companies, and now I want to bring it to the federal government.”
Mr. Johnson—like nearly all the Republican candidates—said “the second thing I’m going to do is shut down the Department of Education (DOE). Eight percent of all the money that’s collected goes to grades K-through-12. So, what I’m going to do is get rid of 4,300 of those 4,400 (DOE) people, and we’re going to then ship the money directly to the states, and they can distribute it.”
Mr. Suarez, who sat down with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds for a “Fair Side Chat” before making his Des Moines Register soapbox pitch, said he would be “an absolutely impossible candidate for Democrats to beat” because he can sway “three core constituencies” of the Democratic Party to the GOP.
“It would be like an incredible victory if we could win Hispanics, if we could win urban voters, both of which I’ve done already in my community,” said Mr. Suarez, the only Republican mayor among the 10 biggest cities in the United States.
He said 20 percent of the nation’s Hispanics are undecided. “I believe I can get Hispanics” nationwide the way he has in South Florida’s Dade County, a deep blue area less than a decade ago that is now very competitive for the ascendant GOP.
“People in cities are a critical demographic. There’s no reason why people in cities, particularly crime-ridden cities, should be voting Democrat. They’re not delivering” the way he is in crime-prevention, economic development, and educational opportunities for his constituents, Mr. Saurez said.
“And then lastly, the third (Democrat “core constituency”), and it’s unbelievable to me, that a Democrat won young voters. If we could win young voters,” he said, “if we can do that, it’s game over. There isn’t a place in the United States where Democrats can win.”
Day Three of the Iowa State Fair will see entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former Trump administration U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis—all campaigning across the Hawkeye State this week—joining Ms. Reynolds for morning “Fair Side Chats.”
Mr. Ramaswamy and Ms. Haley will later that day appear on Des Moines Register Political Soapbox along with Mr. Binkley and Democrats Marianne Williamson, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
Ms. Williamson is scheduled to be soapbox stumping when Mr. Trump makes his helicopter arrival at the fair for a rally not coordinated with the fair, Ms. Reynolds, or the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox.
Trump supporters, including 2022 Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, were already an ample presence throughout the 455-acre midway grid on Aug. 11.
Former Republican Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), and Mr. Hurd will campaign at the fair next week.