CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Few even mentioned his name, and the new federal indictment he faces was completely ignored, as Republican candidates for president tried in Iowa Sunday to present themselves as Donald Trump alternatives.
Over the course of two hours, seven GOP hopefuls took their turn on stage in front of about 800 party activists in the leadoff caucus state, all invited to speak at Iowa Rep. Ashley Hinson's fundraising barbecue at a Cedar Rapids racetrack.
But in their pitches to challenge Trump for the 2024 nomination, it was as if his indictment Tuesday on federal charges accusing him of working to overturn the 2020 election results had never happened, even from the candidate who has suggested the former president quit the race.
Instead, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has been a vocal Trump critic, touched only on the related Republican outrage with the Department of Justice, which many conservative activists allege has been politically biased in its investigation of Trump. The former president is also facing federal charges filed in June accusing him of improperly keeping sensitive documents in his Florida home and obstructing efforts to recover them.
Hutchinson Sunday only called for revamping the Department of Justice and in a popular applause line for GOP candidates promised to name a new head of the department.
“And yes, I would get a new attorney general that would enforce the rule of law in a way that is fair for our country,” said Hutchinson, earning polite applause from the audience.
Even Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has warned that Republicans will lose next year by looking backward and repeating Trump's false claims the 2020 election was stolen, came only as close as saying, “The time for excuses is over.”
Trump remains very popular within the Iowa Republican caucus electorate. A New York Times/Siena College poll of likely Iowa Republican caucus attendees, published Friday but taken before Trump’s indictment was made public, showed him far ahead of his closest rival. All other would-be challengers, except DeSantis, received support in the single digits.
Still, the poll suggested Trump’s position may be slightly less strong in Iowa than it is nationally.
Throughout the early months of the campaign, Republican strategists have warned against attacking Trump directly, arguing it tends to anger voters who have supported him and see the charges he faces as political persecution, even as they are open to other candidates.
“Think of everything he's been through,” said Rosie Rekers, an interior decorator from Waverly, Iowa, who attended the Hinson event. “We've got to move on from that.”
DeSantis, Hutchinson, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, conservative radio host Larry Elder and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy made their arguments for their candidacies with no mention of Trump.
Only two candidates Sunday mentioned Trump by name.
Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who served in the post under Trump, mentioned him in an anecdote about a report she filed to him, an illustration of her irritation about member nations who opposed U.S. policy but received foreign financial aid.
Michigan businessman Perry Johnson was the only other candidate to name Trump, first by noting the former president had spent more money than he had to raise campaign contributions.
Johnson, who received little support in the New York Times poll noted he had pledged to pardon Trump last spring after the former president was indicted by a grand jury in New York on charges he falsified documents related to payments made to a porn star.
“I think that it's unfair that we start picking on our candidates and letting the Democrats decide who should be running,” Johnson said.