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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Presidential Circus Descends on Iowa

AMES, Iowa -- If you happen to be near Iowa this weekend, consider this offer: Swing by Ames and you can eat your fill of barbecue, catch a performance by Crystal Gayle or have your picture taken with Vic Damone.

The cost? Heck, someone will pay you the $25 you need to show up. The catch? You must be an Iowa resident eligible to vote in the November 2000 presidential election. What does any of this have to do with picking the next leader of the free world? More than you may think.

A largely meaningless straw poll set for Saturday has emerged, improbably, as the single most important political event of the young campaign, a do-or-die test for roughly half the 10-candidate Republican field and a reality check for the heavily fortified campaign of Texas Governor George W. Bush.

The speeches and mock election will be the season's first real measure of candidate strength as well as the first chance for voters anywhere to compare Bush with the Republican field.

It has also become a spectacle worthy of P.T. Barnum.

Candidates have been camping out in Iowa for weeks, spending hundreds of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars stumping for an event that, for more than 20-plus years, has never correctly predicted the Republican nominee. Only once, in 1979, has the straw poll even forecast the winner of the Iowa caucuses, which will launch the presidential nominating process next February. Millionaire publisher Steve Forbes is handing out silver pins to all who pledge their votes Saturday, gold for those who promise to bring a friend or two. Bush paid $43,500 for a picnic area outside Ames' Hilton Coliseum, site of the straw poll, making the grassy swath possibly the priciest rental property in Iowa history.

Still, even if the event, with all its enticements, seems more auction than election, the outcome Saturday could have serious consequences in the Republicans' race for president. A convincing Bush victory would make the long odds for the rest of the field even longer; conversely, a stumble by the front-runner might provide an opening for an alternative to emerge.

A weak showing could snuff out several struggling candidates, most likely Lamar Alexander, former governor of Tennessee, or former Vice President Dan Quayle. Former American Red Cross president Elizabeth Dole might also have to reconsider her challenge if she fails to crack the top tier of finishers.

"The grim reaper is going to be waiting outside the gates of the Ames fieldhouse," said contender Patrick Buchanan, a television commentator. In truth, the event is nothing more than a $25-a-head pep rally sponsored by the Iowa Republican Party. The extraordinary attention paid to the vote reflects the quickened pace of the 2000 primary process, the desire for some gauge of Bush's political potency, along with a news vacuum just waiting to be filled. About 500 reporters have requested credentials for the event, with some cable networks planning live coverage.

"It's the dog days of summer. Almost nothing else is going to create news in the political world," said Q. Whitfield Ayres, a Republican pollster and Ames native. "We've had this major phenomenon of a governor coming out of Texas and just dominating the polls, and there's a great curiosity to see whether or not this is going to be a competitive contest. Some folks believe this is an indication."

Bush upped the stakes in June on his first visit to Iowa by boldly declaring his intention to win the straw poll.

By contrast, most other candidates are low-balling their expected performances, the more to exult when they exceed those meager benchmarks.

Alone among the field, Senator John McCain of Arizona has refused to participate in the straw poll, basing his strategy almost entirely on his performance in the early primaries in New Hampshire, South Carolina and California. "It's a great fund-raiser for the Iowa Republican Party," he scoffed. "I congratulate them for the scam."

Forbes, dipping into his vast fortune, appears to be spending the most. Over the last two months, he has spent at least $800,000 on television ads alone, according to monitoring by rival candidates and the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising. Alexander, the only other candidate to advertise on television, has spent about $135,000 in the last two weeks.

Bill Dal Col, manager of Forbes' campaign, declined to discuss spending for the straw poll, saying only that "we're doing what needs to be done." However, he dismissed as "outrageous" the claims from rival camps that Forbes has budgeted well in excess of $2 million.