By Eric Bradner and Kate Sullivan, CNN
(CNN) — The entire field of 2024 Republican candidates and likely contenders – minus the front-runner – descended on Iowa on Saturday for a fundraiser for veterans that featured a motorcycle ride and a barbecue as they mingled with politically plugged-in voters in the first state on the GOP nominating calendar.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, in a leather vest, rode on a motorcycle as he and Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, the host of the annual “Roast and Ride” gathering, led hundreds of riders to the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines.
Retail politicking was in full swing at the fairgrounds. Florida first lady Casey DeSantis, the wife of newly declared 2024 candidate Ron DeSantis, climbed up on a tractor with two of their children after signing hats and taking photos with voters.
Former President Donald Trump was notably absent from the event, which came two days after he held several campaign events in the state and participated in a Fox News town hall with Iowa voters. But all other leading candidates – including DeSantis, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson – made public appeals for support.
As Trump and DeSantis escalate their ongoing feud, the Florida governor took a few veiled shots at his rival Saturday, arguing that “leadership is not about entertainment” or “building a brand” and that the Republican Party needed to “dispense with the culture of losing.”
DeSantis also doubled down on his clash with entertainment giant Disney, while acknowledging certain Republican concerns over his targeting of a private business.
“We stand for the protection of our children. We will do battle against anybody who seeks to rob them of their innocence, and on those principles, I will not compromise. Here I stand,” DeSantis said.
The presence of nearly all of the 2024 GOP contenders at Ernst’s eighth annual Roast and Ride event is a demonstration of her influence within the party – both in Washington, where she is Republicans’ fourth-highest-ranking senator, and in Iowa, where a strong performance in the caucuses is a crucial momentum-builder for presidential hopefuls.
Ernst said Saturday she believed voters were focused on the future as they begin sizing up the party’s field of candidates.
“I know President Trump has a great base here. It is strong, but at the same time, we don’t want to hear what has happened in the past because we’ve had two years of the Biden administration that is destroying our nation,” the senator told CNN. “So they want to know what are the future decisions that will turn our country around and who is going to lead us forward.”
Ernst, who is unlikely to endorse a candidate in the race, stressed that she was not ruling Trump out for voters, but said voters were “hungry to hear about the future.”
Pence said Saturday that he would be “announcing in Iowa” come Wednesday, when he is expected to launch his presidential campaign. The former vice president was the only 2024 hopeful who participated in the motorcycle ride from the Big Barn Harley-Davidson dealership in Des Moines to the fairgrounds to kick off the gathering.
“I believe as conservatives, men and women, you have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to shape the leadership of this party in ways that will shape the nation as never before,” Pence said.
Haley, who will be participating in a CNN town hall in Iowa on Sunday, spoke of the importance of the state caucuses on the primary calendar.
“Don’t complain about what you get in a general if you don’t play in this caucus. Because it matters,” she said. “I think we’ve done over 25 events. I’m going to keep coming. I’m not doing shortcuts. I’m not going to do a rally and leave you.”
Haley’s husband, Michael Haley, was at the Roast and Ride event ahead of his scheduled deployment to Africa in the coming weeks with the South Carolina Army National Guard.
Scott, who is among the better-funded GOP hopefuls, made the case for his candidacy.
“I scare the dickens out of the radical left and Joe Biden – the proof of my life destroys their lies,” the lone Black Republican in the US Senate said.
The Roast and Ride event kicks off a summer of “cattle calls” – gatherings of large crowds of Republicans in states that vote early on the primary calendar – where presidential candidates flock for opportunities to impress activists and voters and build support for their campaigns.
Many of the same 2024 hopefuls were on hand for the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition’s spring kickoff in April, but most had not yet officially launched their campaigns.
This story has been updated with additional information.
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CNN’s Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.