September 23, 2023

DES MOINES – The Gannett-owned Des Moines Register is one of those medium-sized American dailies hanging on in a tough environment. Its signature political event is the annual Political Soapbox, long the premier venue for speechifying on the main drag of the Iowa State Fair.

But this year, the Register has a new rival. Republican Governor Kim Reynolds is hosting a series of “Fair-Side Chats” with presidential candidates on the other side of a set of stalls selling pork-on-a-stick, Spam-burgers, and other delicacies.

And Reynolds has the better bookings: Governor Ron DeSantis and Senator Tim Scott, seen as among the campaign’s top tier, are skipping the Register’s wide-open public platform in favor of Reynolds’ safer stage. (Trump, in a snit with Reynolds, did neither.)

Reynolds is a star of retail politics who practically lives at the fair, and a welcoming public presence — but a rookie interviewer. In her first outing Thursday, the radio host and candidate Larry Elder cheerfully rolled over her attempt to ask questions. Friday, she mixed up the state from which North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum hailed, and found herself chiming in “yep, yep” to inanities like Miami mayor Francis Suarez’s declaration, “we’re ideators, we generated ideas.” She got out of the frame for Vivek Ramaswamy’s performance of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” It was the safest political space.

Thursday evening, DeSantis and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley visited the other main media event of the day, a live taping of the “Ruth-Less” podcast, founded by former aides to Senator Mitch McConnell. Its name refers to the GOP-dominated Supreme Court after Ruth Bader Ginsberg. The podcast is raucous and beloved by the party’s political class, and the Des Moines bar was full of staffers for various campaigns. But its hosts aren’t looking to put their guests in a bad spot —the Republican consultant Eric Wilson called it a “trusting, safe space.”

Thursday night at Johnny’s Hall of Fame in Des Moines, the Ruthless hosts played a game with DeSantis called “Dem or Journo,” reading quotes calling DeSantis things like “fascist dictator” and asking him to guess which quote came from a political enemy, which from the main enemy, the media. He guessed right. “History has shown that siding with Governor DeSantis is has to be the right move when you face a crisis,” one of the co-hosts, who goes by the name Comfortably Smug on Twitter, concluded.