in Ames, Iowa - Clowns on stilts walk alongside a seemingly endless line, shaking hands with the sweaty Iowans waiting for a bit of the barbecue that lies just beyond the red, white, and blue balloon arch. Kids in harnesses climb an inflatable mountain that soars at least 30 feet into the air, while younger siblings jump in a giant spacewalk or crawl through some sort of dragon with windows in its side. "You Light Up My Life" booms over the P.A. system, and the mumbled "thank you very much" indicates that Debby Boone, in the flesh, is somewhere nearby. The dozen or so reporters from places like Germany, Australia, and Japan may be forgiven for thinking they've stumbled upon the Iowa State Fair. But that event-complete with its sculpture of The Last Supper molded entirely of butter-is actually taking place 30 miles down the road in Des Moines. Here in Ames, something far more important is going on: 24,000 Iowans are deciding which candidates the rest of the country might get to choose from for president. If democracy tends to be a circus, this is its sideshow. The Iowa Straw Poll, like the bearded lady, is odd, outdated, and irresistibly fascinating. Everyone involved-the candidates, the voters, and certainly the press-knows that it really shouldn't matter. They know the election is still more than a year away, that Iowa voters are in no way representative of the U.S. population, that not a single delegate is selected in Ames, that the whole event is not an election at all, but a fundraiser for the Iowa GOP. And yet they come. The candidates come with millions of dollars and almost as many promises. (Only John McCain stayed away, presumably because his opposition to federal ethanol subsidies is wildly unpopular among Iowa farmers.) The voters come from every corner of the state, aboard more than 300 luxury buses chartered by the campaigns. And the media come with satellite dishes and cameras and laptop computers, some 600 strong. The Iowa Straw Poll has never mattered this much before. In 1995 fewer than 11,000 voters showed up to mark their ballots; this year the number was close to 25,000. And no candidate has ever before been forced out of the race after a poor showing in Ames-not even Al Haig, who tallied just 12 votes back in 1987. But this year is different, thanks to a front-loaded primary schedule that will enable one candidate to lock up the nomination by early March instead of May or June. That's because big states like California and New York-feeling the candidates were ignoring their voters-moved their primaries up by several months. With such a compressed campaign season, there's no time for the slow winnowing of candidates that usually occurs in the spring. So this time around, the winnowing started on a glorious summer day in Ames. It was, according to one wag, a chance for the Republicans to "shoot their wounded." The first to receive the blindfold and proverbial last cigarette was former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, who vaulted to national prominence after winning 11 percent of the vote in the 1995 straw poll. This year, despite campaigning in Iowa so often he should probably be paying state income taxes, he attracted just 6 percent of the vote. He bowed out the following Monday: "My heart tells me to keep going and so do a lot of telephone calls this morning, but there's really no realistic way to do that." Pundits widely predicted a similar fate for former Vice President Dan Quayle, despite his vow to stay in the race after attracting a paltry 4 percent of the vote in Ames. The day Mr. Alexander left the race, two top Quayle operatives in South Carolina, another crucial primary state, jumped ship and headed for the McCain campaign. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, a late entrant in the race, will probably make an early exit as well, based on his 2 percent showing. Thus the 100 million or so other voters across America won't have the option of voting for Mr. Alexander-nor, most likely, for Mr. Quayle or Mr. Hatch. And if they want to vote for Pat Buchanan, they may have to leave the GOP, since the commentator's fifth-place finish may push him toward the Reform Party. Is this any way to pick a president? The Founding Fathers wore wigs, but not bright green or orange ones accompanied by big clown shoes and bulbous red noses. Karen Hughes, communications director for the Bush campaign, called the event a "festival of democracy." If so, the festival part started long before the democracy part. Hours before the first vote was cast, candidates began luring passers-by into the tents that dotted the Iowa State University landscape. Real estate, like votes, was for sale here. Mr. Bush paid a record $40,000 to the Iowa GOP to secure his prime spot directly outside the front doors of the coliseum where the voting would take place. Teenage beauty queens from various counties milled about in tiaras and full-length satin gowns. Onstage, a local band called the Nadas warmed up part of the crowd while most were next door sampling ribs from Famous Dave's World Famous BBQ. (The Bush camp had separate tents for eating, entertainment, and speeches, as well as a small, enclosed affair mysteriously labeled "VIP Tent.") Across a narrow strip of pavement-dubbed the demilitarized zone by some in the press-lay the Forbes extravaganza. His was the space with the inflatable mountain, slide, and spacewalk, as well as the only air-conditioned tent in all of Ames. The air conditioning, regrettably, seemed to be set for the typical 100-degree August day; since this Saturday was 20 degrees cooler, many goose-pimpled Iowans decided it was too cold inside to wait for their man's brief speech. Most of those who went outside waited for food instead-and waited and waited. By 1:30 p.m., the food line stretched some 600 feet, with wait times approaching 45 minutes. While they waited, supporters donned their free Forbes T-shirts in a particularly garish shade of orange. Bush operatives eyed the orange line nervously, clearly hoping it was a function of poor planning rather than huge numbers. Up a short hill from these two camps-and further from the coliseum-was Lamar Alexander's headquarters. "Lamar and Honey Alexander welcome you to a Taste of Tennessee" proclaimed giant banners that blocked the view of the Bush tents below. Crystal Gayle provided the star power here, and it proved far more potent than the candidate's. While Mr. Bush enjoyed a rock-star fantasy of screaming fans and Men in Black- style security guards, Mr. Alexander, standing directly beneath a huge photo of himself, went all but unnoticed. The Quayle camp was a similarly low-key affair. It lay nearest the spot where some two dozen TV trucks parked, their satellite dishes pointed skyward, yet few clamored for live pictures of the candidate. Reggie White, the former Green Bay Packer, provided some excitement when he showed up at the tent, but he was there to promote a ban on gay marriages, not to endorse Mr. Quayle. Meanwhile, two black-clad NARAL representatives prowled outside, hoping to promote abortion with any members of the press who happened by. Next door, Elizabeth Dole's tent was deceptively quiet. Twenty registration tables were set up along the front of her plot, but the lines were much longer at the five portable toilets nearby. A few disgruntled Forbes supporters drifted in, drawn in part by the long wait for the food tables. (Barbecue again.) A gaggle of sorority sisters, recruited by Mrs. Dole herself just the day before, sat down front near the stage-the only visible evidence of the campaign's Girl Power aspirations. Nearby, two couples danced on the pavement under a banner proclaiming "Dole Rocks." The Dole band actually seemed to be swinging rather than rocking, but it was hard to tell for sure because of the volume of Gary Bauer's stage show just a few feet away. The Christian contemporary band 4 Him belted out hits with lyrics about Jesus and sin that scandalized some journalists. Meanwhile, two children with clown paint on their faces played happily with a giant stuffed Shamu in the "Bauer Kidz Zone" tent-a far cry from the Forbes Fantasyland, but still a bow to Mr. Bauer's family base. At the Keyes tent, no lunch was served-only ice cream and sodas. Still, it had the feel of an old-fashioned revival service, right down to the sawdust on the floor. Earnest young volunteers handed out brochures dense with copy, while others buttonholed reporters to sing the praises of their candidate. One man, wearing a hat from his union local, said he had never before voted in a GOP straw poll, but was supporting Mr. Keyes this time because of President Clinton's stand on gays in the military. In a flurry of foul language, he ranted about the homosexuals "crawling all over" the "impressionable 18-year-olds" in the Army. "I was in the military," he concluded. "I know it happens, you know it happens." Outside the Keyes and Bauer tents, supporters of Pat Buchanan stood with signs pointing to their candidate's distant outpost. Everyone grumbled about the hike, but most reporters seemed to agree that the conservative pundit served the best barbecue of the event. (Maurice's, imported all the way from South Carolina.) The jazz band played an original song that seemed to be called "Go Pat, Go Pat Go." When the candidate himself finally arrived-wearing a red, white, and blue hat with an equally gaudy American flag tie-the band struck up a bizarre rendition of "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You." Orrin Hatch had a tent, too, of course, but few people seemed to be able to find it. As word circulated that singer Vic Damone and basketball great Karl Malone were both appearing under the Hatch big top, folks started asking each other for directions, mostly in vain. Celebrity-starved voters did get a thrill when a mob in the Buchanan tent parted briefly, revealing former Clinton pal turned TV celebrity George Stephanopoulos, looking, as usual, in need of a good haircut. The candidate he was covering stood haplessly by, waiting for the euphoria to pass. As 4:00 neared, the mob started moving into the coliseum, prompting the fire marshal, at one point, to close the doors until the crowds could dissipate. Iowans, it seems, are nothing if not patient. After waiting in line for hours for both food and bathrooms, they lined up again to cast their all-important votes. Or try to, at any rate. One elderly woman, after inching along in an interminable line, was upset to discover that she was approaching the concession stand, not the voting booth. She wandered off to start all over again in a new line, muttering under her breath. Since relatively few Iowans came to Ames undecided, most votes were cast before the speeches even began. Still, by program time almost every seat in the cavernous basketball stadium was filled, leaving some older voters to crawl on all fours up the steeply pitched aisle of the upper tier, looking for the few remaining seats near the rafters. They might have wondered why they bothered. The speeches were, for the most part, safe and perfunctory. Only the three most conservative candidates-Messrs. Bauer, Buchanan, and Keyes-exhibited anything approaching passion. Mr. Forbes might have been passionate, but few in the hall could hear his speech due to a tactical goof. In the pep rally that preceded his presentation-a riot of swirling lights, blaring music, and pyrotechnics-thousands of balloons were dropped from the ceiling. Supporters of other candidates gleefully popped the balloons for the next 10 minutes, drowning out the speech almost entirely. Not that it mattered much. The Iowa Straw Poll is primarily a test of organizational strength, not rhetorical brilliance. Campaigns worked for months to identify their supporters and bus them to Ames, then paid the $25 voting fee for anyone who signed up at their tent. By counting the number of voting tickets they distributed, the campaigns could gauge their appeal long before the polls closed. Voters weren't required to stick with their original choice, but interviews throughout the day indicated that most Iowans agreed with the woman who said she was going to "dance with the one that brung me." In the end, Mr. Bush's huge war chest and awesome state organization seemed to have "brung" the most. Since the winner was never seriously in doubt, reporters awaiting the final results (delivered nearly an hour late) set about trying to determine what percentages for each candidate could be considered a victory or a defeat. With most voters long since gone home, reporters milled around the coliseum floor, comparing notes and picking brains. Groups would form, discuss the possible outcomes, reach some sort of consensus, then disband to try their theory on another group elsewhere on the floor. Perception, as it turned out, was at least as important as reality. Mrs. Dole, once considered a strong No. 2, finished third here. But since she'd been seen as a falling star, Sunday's headlines played that finish as a major victory. Mr. Bauer's fourth-place finish was considered a political miracle, given his 1 percent standing in some national polls, while Mr. Buchanan's showing was generally reported as disastrous-though he trailed Mr. Bauer by only 400 votes. As for the top two, Mr. Bush's spin was initially in doubt. Reporters seemed inclined to view the governor's 10-point win as a disappointment in light of his 40-point lead in some polls. But after more note-comparing and brain-picking, a verdict was reached in time for Sunday's press run: Mr. Bush had "solidified his lead" while Mr. Forbes was a "strong"-but not surprising-second. And with that, everyone went home. The festival of democracy was over. Not a single delegate was chosen, not a single binding vote cast. Some 25,000 Iowans had spoken, some 600 reporters had interpreted, and now everyone else would have to live with the consequences. Voters in the rest of the country might not think it's fair that a few folks in a small Midwestern farming state have so much influence. After all, the best bus or the best barbecue is hardly the standard for picking the next president. Or the best T-shirt, for that matter. One young man cast his vote for Mr. Bush, then approached a campaign worker handing out coupons for free T-shirts to Bush voters. Sorry, said the worker, only those who'd registered at the tent earlier and picked up Bush voting badges were entitled to the T-shirts. The young man grumbled that he'd just voted for the governor, with or without his badge, but the campaign worker would not be swayed. "Now I wish I'd voted for someone else," the young man grumbled as he stormed away. Democracy, as they say, ain't pretty.