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Up go the tents, out come candidates, in pack voters

Under carnival tents filled with free food and music, Republican presidential candidates courted Iowa voters Saturday in an informal poll that could reshape the GOP field. Texas Gov. George W. Bush sought to solidify his front-runner status, but publisher Steve Forbes mounted a significant challenge.

Bush, Forbes and seven other White House hopefuls poured millions of dollars and spent hundreds of hours in this initial caucus state to test the potency of their political operations. One candidate, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, called the non-binding poll a "sham" and refused to go.

The candidates lured supporters to Ames on a cool, sun-splashed afternoon with a circuslike setup on the grounds of Iowa State University. As hot air balloons hovered overhead, bands and singers entertained while attendees lined up under any one of about a dozen big top tents to munch on free barbecue sandwiches or other treats.

The most common theme among the GOP candidates' speeches was a vow to lead the nation to a more moral footing in a country they painted as losing its values and coarsened by a scandal- plagued White House. Others included calls for tax cuts, school choice and a stronger military.

Introduced amid a burst of fireworks, patriotic tunes and a spray of balloons, Forbes didn't mention Bush but took steady aim at him. "The power of these Washington elites won't be tamed, bent or broken by a candidate who relies on pollsters and tutors to tell him what he thinks," he told a capacity crowd that heard each candidate speak.

Taking a higher road, Bush called his rivals "fine candidates" and stuck to his standard speech _ delivered with little passion. "Together, we will prove that someone who is conservative and compassionate can win without sacrificing principles," he said.

After her address, Elizabeth Dole was joined on the stage by her husband, former Sen. Bob Dole, the 1996 GOP nominee.

The stakes were particularly high for former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, who has bet his entire campaign on Iowa.

Television commentator Pat Buchanan, Washington activist Gary Bauer, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, radio broadcaster Alan Keyes and former Vice President Dan Quayle struggled to emerge as the strongest social conservative candidate.

Forbes' aides had urged his supporters to vote early, before herds of voters jammed polling stations. Bush's aides didn't _ and found many of their backers locked outside the main building after listening to a late-running music show. They scoured the grounds with bullhorns urging Bush backers to vote at alternative sites _ and not to leave.

Bush invited Iowans to shake hands with former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, listen to singers Tracy Byrd, Linda Davis and Emilio Navaira, have a free lunch, and then vote.

Forbes spent an estimated $2-million in a gold-plated campaign to win the vote. After weeks of TV and radio ads pitching his message of conservative economics and moral values, he opened his tent with singers Debbie Boone, Ronnie Milsap and Beverly Ellis.

Inside the university's Hilton Coliseum, the candidates lined up to sum up their appeal in 13-minute speeches, the first time in the campaign that so many candidates appeared under one roof.

Organizers shut the doors to the coliseum, because it was at its capacity of 14,000. Party officials estimated that 24,000 people were on hand to vote _ twice as many as expected.

The Iowa Republican Party used the event as a fundraiser, charging the campaigns $25 for every vote cast. All Iowans could vote as long as they could prove their residence in the state and that they would be 18 years old by Election Day 2000.

Though no straw poll winner ever has won the GOP nomination, the contest has helped and hurt any number of candidacies ahead of the first real votes, the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

Bush sought a convincing victory to further distance himself from the pack with time running out on his rivals. He competed at the risk of tarnishing his image as the GOP's best vote-getter, the man most likely to win a general election.

Forbes hoped to prove that he could convert his money, message and tireless work into an impressive number of votes. If he could not do it in a money-driven straw poll, questions were certain to be asked about his prospects down the line.

Alexander needed to finish in the first four places to avoid dropping out of his second presidential race, aides said.

Dole draws huge crowds stocked with young and professional women. The poll was a test of whether they were serious political supporters.

Bauer scoured a network of churches and plumbed his contacts in the home-schooling community. He was the candidate that worried the other campaigns the most, because his support was hard to gauge.

Buchanan taunted the GOP establishment with insurgent campaigns in 1992 and 1996. He needed a strong showing to energize his campaign.

Keyes is not a threat to win the nomination, but did well in the last straw poll.

Hatch, a late entry, looked for a jump start from the poll.

Quayle set his expectations low for Saturday, but knew that finishing behind lesser-known conservatives would cause political trouble.

_ Information from the Associated Press and Knight Ridder Newspapers was used in this report.

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