The rumors have been rampaging through the state all week, incredible tales, peddled with mischief by dueling campaigns with much at stake.

Makes you wonder: Is there anything the Republican presidential candidates won't do to win Saturday's $25-per-vote beauty contest known as the Iowa straw poll?

"It's a weird climate," says Dan Quayle's campaign chairman, Kyle McSlarrow.

How weird?

Consider this rumor: Elizabeth Dole looked into chartering a 747 to fly in a treasure load of elderly women from Sioux City who don't want to ride buses. "I don't even get charter planes to fly Mrs. Dole around the state," chortles Monte Shaw, her Iowa campaign manager. "There's some pretty silly stuff going around. But I think what you've got is some rival campaigns are concerned about all the hundreds of thousands of dollars they're spending on this event."

Like which campaigns?

Like Steve Forbes's campaign, says Shaw, which yesterday erected a humongous air-conditioned tent for its supporters to listen to Ronnie Milsap and Debbie Boone outside the Hilton Coliseum in Ames, home of the Iowa State University Cyclones basketball team, and on Saturday home of the straw poll. To be precise, it's a 66-by-166-foot tent, with three layers of fire-retardant laminated vinyl and French doors at its five openings.

We're talking serious tent.

Check out this rumor: George W. Bush is putting on a rodeo--with broncos and real cowboys, a fence and dirt and everything. Well, there were no signs of rodeo construction yesterday. "But that's creative," admits Mindy Tucker, Bush's campaign press secretary.

Now, let's talk about the battle for the stars. To lure Iowans to Ames on a Saturday afternoon, the campaigns have signed up all sorts of celebrities--basketball stars, football coaches, Olympic gold medalists, a world champion bass fisherman, musicians galore, even Miss Iowa 1999.

The celebs will shake hands, pose for photos, play their hits. Except some of the biggest names originally touted--Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Colin Powell--won't be here, if they were ever coming at all.

"Yeah, Hootie and the Blowfish for Bush, Margaret Thatcher for Forbes, turns out that was a bunch of hooey," snorts Gary Geipel, Quayle's Iowa communications director.

The Bush camp says Hootie was never coming. As for Thatcher, she was "never even contemplated," says Forbes campaign manager Bill Dal Col. Nonetheless, Dal Col adds, Thatcher is a friend of the Forbes family and they will be going on vacation together at the end of the month.

So there.

It's the Greatest Show on Earth. Or at least the Greatest Show in Republican presidential politics this year.

Nine candidates are vying for victory . . . or a respectable showing . . . or at the very least to avoid utter embarrassment. They have imported campaign workers from all over the country. All 1,100 hotel rooms in town are booked. Five hundred journalists are chronicling the drama. The prized Iowan voters have been phoned and re-phoned, mailed to and mailed to, begged and begged again--please come to Ames.

Harold Pierce, who works for an electrical contractor in Des Moines, got three calls at his house the other night. "They were all Dole calls." His wife, Carole, handled the calls. "I don't talk to them." Carole is going to the straw poll and bringing her sister. Harold's not coming along. "I don't want to. I got too much to do."

But the campaigns are still trying. Which is why candidate Gary Bauer went to the state fair and why he made his way to the popular Last Supper exhibit, which is carved out of butter. "I don't know, that's a whole lot of butter," Bauer observed. It's also why Lamar Alexander was a guest chef yesterday at the pork producers' tent at the fair. His specialty? "Bacon. Just good, crisp bacon."

Gotta get the vote out. Whatever it takes. Massaging, cajoling, promising. The campaigns will pay for your $25 ticket, pick you up by bus, give you a catered barbecue dinner from Mustard's or Hickory Park or some other fantastic eatery. They'll have toys for the kids and slides and games. A dunk tank, a stilt walker, face painters. And if that's not enough, the campaigns are throwing in T-shirts and embroidered polo shirts and lapel pins. It's like some kind of Disney package.

Don't think the Iowans are rubes. They know this is their moment. And some of them are working it from every angle.

Take Herb and Linda White, board members of the Wapello County Republican Central Committee. He's a retired schoolteacher. She's a radiology technologist.

"We're going on Bush's bus," he says.

"That doesn't mean we're going to vote for him," she says.

They're self-described Christian conservatives. Would have supported Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) if he had made the race. Bush is not Ashcroft. But he's got dough and he's got momentum. He looks like a winner.

"We're supposed to be bus captains for Bush," Herb says, meaning they're supposed to call others in their area who are on Bush's bus list, make sure they show up.

"Baby-sit them," says Linda.

"We also got tickets from Alexander," says Herb. "We supported him last time, so they sent us tickets." Alexander is not Ashcroft either. But Herb likes him. "We got two free shirts from the Alexander campaign," he says. "They were in this nice canister with the tickets."

The red polo shirts were part of Alexander's package. It was an elaborate package. First the campaign mailed out 15,000 invitations for its Taste of Tennessee dinner from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday. "One of the exotic dishes will be fried okra," says Alexander.

When the invitees sent back RSVPs, they were mailed a ticket to the dinner and a shirt in a canister. When they arrive at Alexander's tent, they will receive their ticket to the straw poll and their Alexander "Plaid Pass." Campaign workers have been busy the past couple of days cutting red string for the "Plaid Pass" and spooling that string through a little hole. The "Plaid Pass" is to be worn around the neck as a badge of honor, an identification of Alexander's strength.

Sounds good, but with multiple tickets to the straw poll already in hand, Herb and Linda White are keeping their options open.

Says Herb: "I may just walk around and see what everybody's having to eat before I vote."

The Iowa Republican Party is a little sensitive about the portrayal of its straw poll as a carnival.

"There won't be any carnival rides, as far as I know," says Ann Dougherty, the party's spokeswoman. "There won't be any elephants. Well, GOPers, but no real ones anyway. Obviously, we don't want it to become a circus."

And it's not a circus to the party, which could gross up to $500,000. "It's a good fund-raiser," says Dougherty.

Indeed, you can't crack your knuckles at the straw poll without paying the party a fee. One hundred bucks a minute to use the video screen on the Hilton Coliseum scoreboard; $250 for a booth; $30 to have your name listed as a sponsor in the program; $25 to attend, whether you vote or not (children under voting age are exempt).

"I don't think there is anything we're charging for where there's not an overhead cost," explains Dougherty.

Bush's campaign shelled out $43,500 for the most coveted real estate, next to the Coliseum, where the balloting will take place. He won the spot in an auction. But the bid didn't cover security and lighting costs. That's extra, based on how much a campaign paid for its space. Which means Bush is paying a hefty share of the security and lighting costs.

Which is one more reason Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is glad he skipped the event. "It is, was, the right decision to skip this circus maximus," says John Weaver, McCain's political director, in a phone interview. He knows something about straw polls, having been national field director for Phil Gramm's '96 campaign. "Having won 23 of 24 straw polls, I can tell you it didn't help much. We cornered the market on straw, and ultimately there were no delegates in straw futures."

But don't tell the Iowa GOP this isn't a serious event. It has pages and pages of rules. Voting will begin at 2 p.m. Central time, end at 8:15, and the results will be announced at 9. Anyone who lives in Iowa is eligible, including high school juniors, presumably. You just have to turn 18 by Nov. 7, 2000, and have a photo ID. Each candidate will get 13 minutes for a speech and presentation. The microphone will be turned off after 13 minutes.

Banners can be hung on the face of the balcony wall, but they can be no bigger than 54 inches wide and 42 inches tall. No stickers of any kind are allowed, and if a candidate's sticker is discovered inside the Coliseum, the campaign will be charged a $5 sticker clean-up fee.

No mylar balloons are allowed, but helium balloons are okay, provided they are tied and weighted. Pyrotechnics are fine if operated by a federally licensed pyrotechnic specialist. Silly String is not allowed.

At Pat Buchanan's headquarters in downtown Des Moines, Tim Haley was explaining his guy's uphill battle. "It's tough. Last time, we could bus 'em in from out of state." Haley, Buchanan's political director, pointed to a campaign worker. "This fellow over here, he brought up a bus from Alabama. This time, it's all Iowa people."

And another competition point: "We can't hire the multimillion-dollar talent. We've got a '50s band from Clive, Iowa. We're selling our candidate, Pat Buchanan."

And with that, Haley was off to run an errand. But he left behind Diana Haas of Boone, N.C., and Dottie Watson of New Orleans, who were working the phones. They worked the lists of the Second Amendment folks and the truckers and the abortion opponents.

"We're finding a lot of people upset with the Republican Party," says Watson. "We'd like to see it become a Bush-Buchanan battle."

Meanwhile, there was more tedious straw-poll work to do. A line of campaign aides stretched across the headquarters and out the door. One at a time, boxes of Maurice's barbecue sauce--12 18-ounce bottles in each--were passed from one worker to the next and then loaded in the back of a pick-up truck.

"This is what we get paid the big bucks for," says Buchanan aide David Burket. "This is what Pat means when he says keeping the working-man jobs."

Yesterday, all the campaigns were busily setting up their tents. Bush and Forbes had the best spaces, right across a narrow street from each other. "The DMZ," said a Forbes aide.

Workers in the two camps were testing their sound systems and checking each other's progress. The Bush people have put up red, white and blue bunting everywhere. Forbes has American flags flying on his food tent. Forbes, for that matter, has many tents--nine 12-by-12 tents to handle ticketing and check-in and for security and medical personnel. He has an overflow tent. He has the big air-conditioned music tent.

Bush has many tents, as well, including one that appears to be set up for speeches and news conferences. It has a podium flanked by American and Texas flags.

But most of the campaigns are not so lavish, and most are in the parking lots--D-1, C-2 or some other letter of the alphabet followed by a number. Tim MacDonald was out there in parking lot land yesterday supervising Bauer's set-up. He talked wind and diesel with the generator people. He talked roast pork sandwiches with the HyVee catering people.

He gazed into the distance, where you could just see Forbes's air-conditioned tent and pointed a visitor in that direction.

"We're going to visit them later in the afternoon, about 3 p.m., when we're sweating."