GOP Hopefuls Grasp At the Iowa Straw Poll

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Only one person has nothing to lose at this yearís supercharged Iowa straw poll: the treasurer of the Iowa Republican Party, whoíll have raked in a cool half-million for the cause by the time voting kicks off Saturday. For the nine GOP presidential candidates frenetically bribing voters with free tickets, celebrities and tchotchkes galore -Ė itís OK, itís not a real electoral event Ė- itís pretty much do or die. For George W. Bush, who has spent about $750,000 on the event, anything less than a convincing win is a dangerous stumble. Steve Forbes, whose campaign plunked down "less than $2 million," is deemed likely to have bought himself second place. After that? In this front-loaded election season, in which checks not made out to George W. are getting harder and harder to come by, finishing among the best of the rest could mean survival itself. "For Bush, the challenge is to meet the high expectations," says TIME Washington correspondent Jay Branegan. "For the rest of the field, this is a competition to get noticed as a viable alternative."

A strong third place for Elizabeth Dole could vault her back to first-alternative status, especially if Bush comes out with something the press deems disappointing. For Dan Quayle and Gary Bauer, itís a bid for the remaining attentions of the religious right. For Lamar Alexander, whoís down to the change in his couch after concentrating on the Hawkeye State, a good showing could be a reprieve from bankruptcy, and a poor one likely a death blow. John McCain, meanwhile, skipped the event completely, calling it a "scam," and in the run-up to the vote itís not hard to see why an avatar of campaign finance reform would find the event distasteful. The event itself is just a fund-raiser for the Iowa GOP, held a full six months before the stateís caucus. Candidates ply farmers with barbecue, musical acts, gold pins, luxury bus rides to the polls; theyíll even pay your $25 entrance fee if you vote for them. Itís the first indignation of an election cycle over-stuffed with money as it is, and in twenty years, the event has never, ever correctly predicted the nationís next President. Then again, itís also never been like this.