Republican candidates descend on Iowa State Fair for political beauty pageant

Issues connected to the Middle East among those on voters' minds as primary race heats up

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The wait is finally over.

After all the shadowboxing, the contest to select a Republican candidate to take on US President Joe Biden is finally taking shape with a first debate taking place – albeit without the front-runner, Donald Trump – and candidates making their case in the first-to-vote state of Iowa.

A central fixture is the Iowa State Fair, where candidates are obliged to sample delicious but highly calorific fried food, and answer questions on issues ranging from ethanol subsidies to the Middle East.

Mr Trump made a flying visit to the fair, where he tried to upstage his closest challenger, Ron DeSantis

People from across the country head to the fair, many of them camping onsite for a week or more.

“The main focus of the 2024 elections will be domestic politics,” says Prof Sina Azodi, an expert on international relations at George Washington University.

But Prof Azodi says foreign affairs and national security also play a role.

Some of the questions candidates face will focus on the war in Ukraine as well as the perceived threat of China.

But issues connected to the Middle East – including US support for Israel, and cementing its relationship with Saudi Arabia – are also on the minds of at least some voters.

Iowa is not typical of the US. More than 65 per cent of Republican voters are evangelical Christians. In 2016, they split their support between Ted Cruz and Mr Trump, and overwhelmingly supported the latter in 2020.

A recent poll for the Des Moines Register puts Mr Trump on 42 per cent, Ron DeSantis on 19 per cent, Sen Tim Scott on 9 per cent, and Nikki Haley and Mike Pence at 6 per cent.

Mr Trump’s lead has increased since a series of indictments were levelled against him.

“I don’t think the Democrats are going to give up on him,” says Teresa Loops at the fair.

Mr Trump speaks often of his 2017 decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy there, ending decades of international consensus that the status of the city – sacred to several faiths – should be dealt with as part of a broader settlement.

Mr DeSantis, running a long second to Mr Trump, travelled to Israel this year to deliver a speech where he called the country “one of the most valued and trusted” allies of the US.

“We must reject those who reject Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state,” he said.

Mr Scott of South Carolina, an avowed conservative Christian, rarely speaks without quoting scripture.

At the fair, he was warmly received by conservatives.

“I was impressed by Tim Scott’s willingness to talk about his faith,” said Kimberly Kleckner, 65.

Another fair-goer, Joyce Vanderleest, 66, says she “will support whichever candidate supports Israel”.

Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations recently wrote it was possible to divide the Middle East between “Republican Party countries” and “Democratic Party causes”, with the first party allying itself to specific countries and the second identifying with the Iran nuclear deal and the Palestinians.

"Israel has moved into the pantheon of issues – along with the Second Amendment, low taxes, opposition to abortion, and a strong military – that are essential parts of Republican doctrine,” Mr Cook said.

The state fair in Iowa is said to be the third largest in the nation, after Texas and Minnesota. All are intended to display the traditions of the states.

Iowa, the nation’s largest producer of corn, is famous for its variety of fried food, the smell of which can sometimes be overpowering, especially on a hot day.

All political hopefuls are expected to taste at least some of it. Mr Scott said he was much taken by the funnel cake doughnuts served, as are many of the items, on a stick.

And it’s not only Republicans who show up. Democratic contenders Marianne Williamson and Robert F Kennedy Jr also spoke at the fair.

While they may not have been displaying their political loyalties as obviously as those of the supporters of Mr Trump, there were plenty of Iowans who believed he had it coming, in the form of his four indictments.

“Trump does not know the difference between a truth and a lie,” said Joe Yedlik, 75. “And he’s a bully. We teach children not to be bullies.”

Updated: August 31, 2023, 2:01 PM