Holding court at a Pizza Ranch restaurant Tuesday in Newton, Iowa, Asa Hutchinson tried to keep his long-shot presidential bid afloat as formidable Republican heavyweights continued to dominate the state’s attention.
Those in attendance listened as he avoided easy answers, carefully sidestepped social issues he worried about, were too divisive and made copious references to his previous stints in government — that his stops along the way leading him here included the House of Representatives, leadership . roles in the Homeland Security Department and 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 tucked into the “Bunk House” of the Pic Ranch, a party room right next to the buffet table.
“Our strategy is to do well in Iowa; we want to be in the top five,” he explained. “We want to be able to go to New Hampshire, where we campaigned, and then we’ll hit the South — South Carolina, Arkansas and the other Southern states. We’re in this for the long haul.”
Mr Hutchinson’s campaign has struggled to achieve anything like a cruising altitude. With the first Republican debate, in Milwaukee, a little more than a month away, he is far from having the 40,000 individual donors required to meet the threshold of the Republican National Committee for a place on stage. Failure to appear could sink his campaign.
“I’ll be very simple 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 it.”
He has yet to post public fundraising numbers: “You’ll get the report when it comes out later this week,” he said Tuesday. He then admitted: “We would like to have more money.”
But Mr Hutchinson’s struggles go beyond fundraising, to the heart of any policy: appeal. Or just who’s looking to buy what he’s selling 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. .
Mr. 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 much more brash challenger, former governor Chris Christie of New Jersey.
Another characteristic of Mr. Hutchinson’s candidacy is his long government resume. But voters looking for strong credentials seem more drawn to Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the United Nations.
Few would question Mr. Hutchinson’s religious faith, but former Vice President Mike Pence has been in the trenches with the GOP’s evangelical voters for years. Neither does Mr. Hutchinson have the personal wealth brought to the campaign by North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum or the smooth salesmanship of the money entrepreneur and author Vivek Ramaswamy.
Instead, Mr. 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 pitch.
He says the economy will be the defining issue of the 2024 race, and while he says he too worries about contested cultural issues such as transgender rights, he worries that such issues can lead the party’s leadership astray.
“Today, unfortunately, we have leaders who build on the divide, increase the divide and say, how can we make money from the divide?” he said in Newton.
And he dislikes easy answers, even when his audience might be looking for them. When asked about China and the fentanyl trade, he explained that China sends hard-to-trace precursor chemicals to Mexico, where the drug cartels then manufacture the opioids. China broke off cooperation on the issue when American politician – and a Democrat at that – former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, visited Taiwan.
“I don’t know if you can get China to do anything,” he said.
He chastised one competitor, Mr. Ramaswamy, by name, for running into slogans like “Drain the swamp!” with easy answers, such as an eight-year limit on federal employees, which he said makes recruiting and retaining essential employees like border patrol officers nearly impossible.
Regarding the party “Build the wall!” mantra relating to all aspects of border security, he noted that on a recent trip to the border he saw places where smugglers blew holes in the wall with acetylene torches and Border Patrol welders patched them up, marking the repair dates with chalk.
“I’m looking at a wall with all kinds of weld marks on there and all kinds of scribbled dates on there,” he said. “The thing is, a wall is not enough.”
But in an age of Republican passion, the broad appeal and conciliatory speech that worked for Mr. 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 Mr Hutchinson’s message on Tuesday said they were not giving up on his chances. Deanna Ward, of Ames, a retired secretary at Iowa State University, said at a Tuesday morning meet and greet in Nevada, Iowa, that she liked Mr. Hutchinson’s national security experience and handling of politics.
“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 catch Mr. Hutchinson in Newton. Mr. Wittmuss leans Republican, he said; Ms. Wittmuss is a Democrat. Both are eager for an alternative to the front-runner in the Republican race, Mr. Trump.
Mr. Christie’s constant criticism of Mr. Trump has its appeal, said Mr. Wittmuss, who fondly remembered listening to Mr. Christie in 2016 as he recited long and nuanced answers to tough policy questions.
“Then he came back to New Jersey and did some things so stupid you just couldn’t believe it,” he said, pointing to the scandal that became known as Bridgegate, as well as Mr Christie’s infamous 2017 trip to a beach that had been. closed due to government shutdown.
For months, Mr. Hutchinson has said he has time to gain altitude, but even he spoke with a tone of desperation on Tuesday, noting that the Iowa caucuses had recently been scheduled for an early date, Jan. 15, with the first debate recently. over the horizon.
In Nevada, Iowa, Luke Spence, a United Airlines pilot, hosted Mr. Hutchinson and estimated that he had hosted about 50 “Coffee With the Candidate” events since he started them as a personal passion project in 2019, during the run. until the 2020 Iowa caucuses. On Tuesday morning, he said, he drew his smallest crowd ever. Only six Iowans climbed the stairs, above Farm Grounds Coffee Shop on the town square, to hear Mr. Hutchinson.
“Well, it’s Tuesday morning,” Sue Vande Kamp of Nevada said afterward, as she praised Mr. Hutchinson’s ability and willingness to listen to constituents’ concerns.
Mr Hutchinson said he was undaunted by such displays. He said that he would not be tempted to set the terms of his withdrawal if, for example, he misses the debate in August, or the subsequent debates, or if he fails to secure a top finish in the party meetings in January.
“The only standard I set for myself is that we should all self-evaluate over time,” he said. “You know, I don’t expect 12 to be in the race when you go into Super Tuesday.”