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Presidential candidates battle for Iowa straw poll

Straw poll fever has Iowa in its grip.

Steve Forbes has bought up last-minute television ads, George W. Bush is searching out "team leaders" and Lamar Alexander has campaigned in virtually every corner of Iowa in the last month.

The straw poll on Saturday night is being portrayed as a turning point in the fight for the Republican presidential nomination _ and the candidates are responding in kind.

"I see every campaign putting every ounce of campaign energy into this," said Dee Stewart, executive director of the Iowa Republican Party.

Virtually all of the Republican rivals have built substantial organizational efforts for the straw poll. Only Arizona Sen. John McCain is absent, calling the straw poll a scam.

"They deserve a campaign based on ideas and issues not the financial arms race that the straw poll has become," McCain said.

It's not a cheap deal. Bush admits spending $750,000 and accuses Forbes of spending $2-million. Alexander admits only to "low six-figure" spending, but his campaign has focused almost exclusively on the straw poll all summer.

Alexander has worked his way through a brutal, 21-day grind that took him to every corner of the state. The Forbes bus has been rumbling around the state for nearly two months, all pointing to Saturday night.

"We're not discussing budgets," said Forbes aide Bill Dal Col. "This is a test along the way to February. This is a check to see who can deliver."

Conservative activist Gary Bauer has been working hard on a church-based network, working night and day to lure social conservatives.

"I hit a wall about two days ago," said exhausted aide Marlys Popma.

Plans for a live debate at WOI-TV studios the night before the GOP straw poll were canceled Thursday after just three candidates _ Alexander, commentator Pat Buchanan and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah _ agreed to appear.

Bush arrived in Davenport Thursday night to begin a weekend of campaigning for straw poll votes.

Forbes has bought a half-hour of television time tonight to air a campaign commercial featuring prominent social conservatives, a group he has worked overtime to court.

Forbes has been running phone banks, both from campaign headquarters in Des Moines and from his campaign bus, leaving nothing to chance.

Elizabeth Dole's technique is to find "ticket captains," valued backers who volunteer to show up at the straw poll and bring along 10 friends.

Tickets are $25 apiece, largely provided by the campaigns. People have to be from Iowa, and they get one vote each. The Republican Party has not said how many they have sold, but say the tickets are still selling.

Buchanan is running a low-budget operation, but his campaign office is filled every night with volunteers making phone calls.

For Bush, the phone banks are searching for "team leaders," folks who agree to bring nine others to the straw poll and collect a special reward.

"Team leaders get their picture taken with the governor," said Bush spokesman Eric Woolson.

Virtually all of the Republican contenders were buzzing around the state Thursday, most focusing on the just-opened Iowa State Fair. Bauer headed to a cattle exhibit, while former Vice President Dan Quayle sought support at a pork exhibit.