- Associated Press - Friday, June 5, 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - It’s time for Republican presidential contenders to “roast and ride,” a new twist on Iowa’s down-home style of politicking.

A weekend gathering by freshman Sen. Joni Ernst features a pig roast, speeches from seven 2016 hopefuls and a motorcycle ride that promises to coax at least a few on wheels. It’s a prime political event for Republicans in a state known for a straw poll that is declining in relevance and for an annual steak fry for Democrats that had its final hurrah last year.

The event will be a break from the hotel ballrooms, churches and TV studios where they tend to campaign in the leadoff caucus state.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is expected to join Ernst on a bike along with military veterans, and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry will hold a rival motorcycle ride from - where else? - the city of Perry, Iowa, to join the pork-laden festivities in Boone about 25 miles away.

Among the current and prospective GOP candidates attending are Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former tech executive Carly Fiorina.

It’s a lineup few new senators could dream of attracting. But Iowa’s influence over presidential politics and Ernst’s political celebrity make all the difference.

Ernst would like to see her Saturday event become a tradition of its own. Her political action committee is holding the event, said PAC official Derek Flowers, and some of the money will go to an organization for veterans. Ernst does not plan to endorse a primary candidate.

“What we’re hoping to do is an annual event and focus on having a good Iowa time,” Ernst said, cracking, “It’s not a chicken dinner.”

Ernst’s 2014 campaign drew national attention with a memorable ad in which she boasted about her hog castration skills. She became a breakout star of the campaign, with stories of her farming upbringing and military service.

Ernst will kick off Saturday morning leading a group of military veterans on a ride from Des Moines to Boone. She said hundreds of tickets to the event have been sold at $30 for adults and $12 for kids.

Altogether, she’s trying to give Iowa Republicans a shot at the type of can’t-miss gathering that Democrats long enjoyed with Sen. Tom Harkin’s steak fry fundraiser, which ended last year as he prepared to retire.

Iowa Republicans have a number of major events, like the annual Lincoln Dinner and the straw poll every four years. But Harkin’s steak fry grew in status over the years, drawing huge crowds and a star-studded roster of guests. The final fry drew thousands of party faithful to hot-air balloon grounds outside Indianola, and Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton headlined the show.

David Oman, finance chairman for Ernst’s campaign last year, said it wouldn’t be right to compare Ernst’s first event to Harkin’s recent gathering.

“The Harkin steak fry took on a life and profile unique in our state’s political history,” said Oman, former co-chairman of the Republican Party. “Thousands of people, presidential candidates, Cabinet members, it was quite a show. It would be unfair to assign that standard of success for any event for a first-time senator.”

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