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He is far outspending his opponents to win the state's straw poll.

As thousands of Republican activists prepare to descend on Ames, Iowa, on Saturday for a straw poll meant to gauge support for the GOP's presidential contenders, the event has all the markings of a historic mismatch.

One candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has assembled an unrivaled operation for the event: a statewide corps of 60 "super-volunteers" who have been paid between $500 and $1,000 per month to talk him up, a fleet of buses, more than $2-million in television ads in Iowa, and a consultant who has been paid nearly $200,000 to direct Romney's straw poll production, which will feature barbecue billed as the best in the state.

Facing off against this are a half dozen candidates whose total Iowa expenditures through the end of June do not match the $1-million Romney had already spent by that point, not including his many TV ads.

Not the original script

Tommy Thompson, the former Wisconsin governor, has been advertising in the Denison Bulletin & Review at a cost of $297. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, has been luring voters to Ames by sending out "Brown Bracelets" to wear around town ("a great conversation starter with friends and neighbors").

It wasn't supposed to play out this way. Romney's vast investment in the straw poll was designed to outmuscle former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in the GOP's first real contest of the election, and give Romney a needed early boost as he works to build national recognition.

But his preparation may have been too impressive for his own good. Watching Romney spend so much, Giuliani and McCain dropped out of the straw poll in June. Romney plunged ahead anyway, setting up a mismatch of almost Gulliverian proportions.

Held at Iowa State University's Hilton Coliseum, the straw poll has traditionally been intended to bring the state's Republicans together in the summer before the state's pivotal midwinter caucus, raise some money for the state party and give an early sign of which candidate has the strongest organization.

But with so much money flowing around, it is becoming harder to justify the straw poll as a reflection of voter sentiment, said Dave Roederer, the chairman of McCain's campaign in Iowa. Last year, when he was deciding whose campaign to join, he met with Giuliani, who was aghast at the practice of campaigns paying the state party for the $35 tickets that voters need to enter the poll.

"'In New York, we call that a shakedown. What do you call it here?'" Roederer recalls Giuliani asking. "And I said, 'Well, I guess we call it a fundraiser.' "

By the busloads

Romney, a former venture capitalist and multimillionaire who has lent his campaign $9-million of his own money, has hired buses to travel the state, picking up supporters. It will cost his campaign hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay the entry fee when they arrive.

Aides will not reveal details about his spending, including how many of the $35 tickets Romney will purchase. (Every Iowan with a ticket can vote, though historically not everyone does. President Bush bought 11,000 tickets for his supporters in 1999. About 7,400 of them voted for him.)

But Romney's money gives him a huge advantage in a contest less about convincing undecided voters and more about bringing warm bodies to Ames. Officials with other campaigns have complained privately that some local party activists have said they would like to support their candidate, but felt compelled to back Romney because of the stipends he was offering.

Romney supporters receiving the stipends reject this in interviews, saying they decided to go with him long before the offer of money came along.

"Oh, sure, it's great, but it certainly didn't make my choice," said Norma Adema of Sioux City. "He's getting a lot of criticism for spending a lot of money, but ... when you don't have that name ID, you've got to."