In court Tuesday at a Pizza Ranch restaurant in Newton, Iowa, Asa Hutchinson was trying to keep his long-term presidential bid aloft as formidable Republican heavyweights continued to dominate the state’s spotlight.
Would-be caucus attendees listened as he eschewed easy answers, carefully dodged social issues he worried were too divisive, and made many references to his previous stints in government, his stops on the road that led him here. they had included the House of Representatives, leadership roles in the Department of Homeland Security and the Drug Enforcement Administration and, most recently, the governor’s mansion in Arkansas.
The problem for Mr. Hutchinson was clear and obvious: Only eight Iowa voters were there with him, all crammed into Pizza Ranch’s “Bunk House,” a party room next to the buffet table.
“Our strategy is to do well in Iowa; we want to be in the top five,” she explained. “We want to be able to go to New Hampshire, where we’ve been campaigning, and then we’ll go to the South: South Carolina, Arkansas and the other southern states. We’re in this for the long haul.”
Hutchinson’s campaign has been struggling to reach anything resembling cruising altitude. With the first Republican debate, in Milwaukee, just over a month away, he is far from having the 40,000 individual donors needed to meet the Republican National Committee’s threshold for a spot on the stage. Failure to appear could sink his campaign.
“I’ll be very direct with you: I’m not there yet,” the former governor told radio host Hugh Hewitt last week, adding: “We’re over 5,000, so we have, again, more work to do.” do.”
He has yet to publish the public fundraising figures: “You will receive the report when it is submitted later this week,” he said on Tuesday. Then he acknowledged: “We would like to have more money.”
But Hutchinson’s fights go beyond fundraising, to the heart of any policy: appeals. Or just who is looking to buy what he sells in a race dominated by much bigger names: a former president, a former vice president, the sitting governor of the nation’s third-largest state, the only black Republican in the Senate and others. .
Hutchinson entered the race relatively early and with an obvious calling card: his outspoken opposition to former President Donald J. Trump. But that lane is now occupied by a far more brazen contender, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Another distinguishing feature of Mr. Hutchinson’s candidacy is his extensive government resume. But voters looking for strong credentials seem to be more drawn to Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and ambassador to the United Nations.
Few would question Hutchinson’s religious faith, but former Vice President Mike Pence has been in the trenches with evangelical GOP voters for years. Neither does Mr. Hutchinson have the personal wealth that North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum brings to the campaign, nor the good salesmanship of wealthy businessman and author Vivek Ramaswamy.
Instead, Hutchinson appears to represent a return to a different era of Republicanism, embracing the earnest “compassionate conservatism” of former President George W. Bush, remaining unaligned with any particular wing of the party, and offering a broad discourse.
He says the economy will be the defining issue of the 2024 race, and while he says he also worries about disputed cultural issues such as transgender rights, he worries that such issues may be misdirecting the party’s leadership.
“Today, unfortunately, we have leaders who build on the division, add to the division, and say, how can we make money from the division?” said in Newton.
And he despises easy answers, even when his audience might search for them. When asked about China and the fentanyl trade, he explained that China sends hard-to-trace chemical precursors to Mexico, where drug cartels manufacture the opioids. China broke off cooperation on the issue when a US politician, and also a Democrat, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, visited Taiwan.
“I don’t know if you can get China to do something,” he said.
He criticized a competitor, Mr. Ramaswamy, by name, for coming up with slogans like “Drain the swamp!” with easy answers, such as an eight-year term limit for federal employees, which he said would make recruiting and retaining vital employees like border patrol officers nearly impossible.
As for the party “Build the wall!” mantra related to all aspects of border security, he noted that on a recent trip to the border he had seen places where smugglers had blown holes in the wall with acetylene torches and Border Patrol welders had patched them up, marking the dates chalk repair
“I’m looking at a wall with all kinds of weld marks on it and all kinds of dates scrawled on it,” he said. “The point is that one wall is not enough.”
But in an age of Republican passion, the broad appeal and dovishness that worked for Bush nearly a quarter century ago now feels a mile wide and an eighth of an inch deep, always on the verge of drying up completely.
The few voters who turned out to hear Hutchinson’s address Tuesday said they would not give up their chances. Deanna Ward of Ames, a retired secretary from Iowa State University, told a meeting Tuesday morning in Nevada, Iowa, that she liked Hutchinson’s national security experience and handling of policy.
“He understands the border crisis, he understands diplomacy,” she said.
Steve and Anna Wittmuss drove from their home in West Des Moines, about an hour away, to meet Mr. Hutchinson in Newton. Wittmuss leans Republican, she said; Ms. Wittmuss is a Democrat. Both are eager for an alternative to the favorite in the Republican race, Trump.
Christie’s staunch criticism of Trump has its appeal, said Wittmuss, who fondly recalled listening to Christie in 2016 rattle off lengthy and nuanced answers to tough political questions.
“Then he went back to New Jersey and did some stupid things I just couldn’t believe it,” he said, pointing to the scandal that became known as Bridgegate, as well as Christie’s infamous 2017 trip to a beach that had been closed due to a lockdown. of the government.
For months, Mr. Hutchinson has said he has time to gain height, but even he spoke with a tone of despair Tuesday, noting that Iowa’s caucuses were recently scheduled for an early date, January 15, with the first debate just over the horizon.
In Nevada, Iowa, Luke Spence, a United Airlines pilot, hosted Mr. Hutchinson and estimated that he had organized about 50 “Coffee with the Candidate” events since he started them as a personal passion project in 2019, during the race. until the 2020 Iowa caucuses. Tuesday morning, he said, he had assembled the smallest crowd ever for him. Only six Iowans had made it upstairs, above the Farm Grounds Coffee Shop in the town square, to listen to Mr. Hutchinson.
“Well, it’s a Tuesday morning,” Nevada’s Sue Vande Kamp said afterwards, praising Mr. Hutchinson’s ability and willingness to listen to voters’ concerns.
Mr Hutchinson said he was not intimidated by such demonstrations. He said he would not be tempted to set the terms of his withdrawal if, for example, he loses the debate in August, or subsequent debates, or if he fails to get a superior result in the January caucuses.
“The only standard I’ve set for myself is that we should all self-evaluate as time goes by,” he said. “You know, I don’t expect 12 to be in the running when you get to Super Tuesday.”