The intro music was one of those familiar tunes blasted at NBA arenas when the players are introduced, and you'd have thought for a moment that the collection of Republican candidates who variously trotted, sprinted, pranced to the stage were members of some celebrated championship team.
"Ladies and gentlemen, it all starts in Iowa," roared the announcer, "and on this stage is the next president of the United States."
In fact, the nine players who were hugging and mugging and patting each other on the back are fierce competitors who had never before been together -- Alexander and Bauer and Buchanan and Bush and Dole and Forbes and Hatch and Keyes and Quayle. But here they were, looking out on thousands of fans of disparate allegiances, fanatical souls waving banners and blowing horns and screaming their throats raw at the biggest political event of the year, an extraordinary smorgasbord of politics and entertainment known as the Iowa straw poll.
Inside, the Hilton Coliseum was wild enough. Halls choked with tired, frustrated Iowans, bused in from places such as Sioux City and Council Bluffs, waiting, waiting, waiting to cast a vote that could decide a candidate's future. Or so the pundits say. The voters had to put their left thumbs on a little pad doused with something called "Red Finger Stain." This was so they couldn't vote again -- voter-fraud protection.
It was impossible not to see the irony in an event that tried so hard to be serious but was constantly being upstaged by frivolity. The candidates paid for nearly all the votes they received -- $25 a pop -- and for the roast pork sandwiches and the corn on the cob and the face painters and the clowns and Ronnie Milsap and for all the rest of the carnival that lured the voters there in the first place. That part of the show took place outside the arena, on rented lawns and rented parking lots.
"It was kind of like part country-western concert, part state fair, part political convention," observed Karen Hughes, Texas Gov. George W. Bush's communications director. "A festival of democracy."
Iowans wandered from tent to tent in search of the best entertainment and best attractions. There was a huge line outside Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch's tent that crossed a street and extended to a sidewalk, folks with papers and basketballs and footballs and cameras. They were there to get Utah Jazz star Karl Malone's autograph, not necessarily in support of Hatch.
There were not a whole lot of undecideds walking around. "It feels like a convention where you don't know what's happened," said Tom Rath, an adviser to Lamar Alexander.
An estimated 25,000 to 30,000 people came to the straw poll -- so many that they had to close the doors of the coliseum at one point and move the last voters to booths away from the coliseum. Some, with the barbecue still in long supply at some campaign tents, chose to relax, stay outside and watch a stilt-walker or send their kids rappelling down Steve Forbes's inflatable mountain.
There were celebrities walking around everywhere. Some were sure they were in the right place, but not quite sure why. "I don't know a lot about politics," said pro football lineman Reggie White. "I'm not a politician."
Front-runner Bush greeted a middle-aged gang of Republican motorcyclists led by Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) and Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson (R). The Texas governor worked a rope line through the cyclists, all of whom drove new, expensive Harley-Davidsons and Victories.
The cyclists powered into the facility here, parking right next to a Teamsters encampment and Patrick J. Buchanan's tent. When they arrived, Hatch was trying to speak to the Teamsters, who wore "Fair Trade, Not Free Trade" T-shirts, but he was drowned out by the roar from the cyclists' alleged mufflers.
The food was plentiful. Elizabeth Dole's tent stuck to pork, rolls and beans to satisfy the hundreds of people who came to support her, washed down with lemonade. Dole's favorite color, yellow, according to the "Most Frequently Asked Questions" section on her Web site, was much in evidence. The Prairie Cats, in front of a banner saying "Dole Rocks," played swing and rock-and-roll.
Former diplomat Alan Keyes laid on Dixieland jazz, courtesy of the Keith Nash six-piece band, playing in front of a banner that read, "Finally! The Liberals Lose The Debate!" But, occasionally, the Keyes music was drowned out by the more amplified gospel rock on Gary Bauer's stage next door.
Of the "skinny cats" in this race, Alexander, the former Tennessee governor, seemed to have put on a good show -- with good food; Bauer crowded his stage with Christian performers, including the popular 4Him, and thoughtfully provided a small "Bauer Kidz Zone" for very small children.
Former vice president Dan Quayle's team got the crowds but made a mistake by not providing food until well after 1 p.m. "Our support is diminishing by the minute," joked Hal Dielschneider after a half-hour wait. "This is the first time we've ever been to one of these."
The well-funded Forbes organization looked ruthlessly impressive even before the speeches started in the main hall. His caterers, Hickory Park, started serving food at 11 a.m. -- somewhat earlier than the rest of the candidates. They had 3,100 pounds of pork and countless bottles of iced tea, water, lemonade and packs of potato chips waiting for the hungry faithful.
By lunchtime, the lines were running perhaps 600 yards around the block. Some people had to wait 40 minutes. Russell Hopp and his family had traveled 180 miles from George to be there and to back Forbes. His sons, Ethan and Alex, would be going on to the play area -- a bouncy castle, a rubber slide, multifarious dragons and a tower. The entrance to the Forbes section was an arch made up entirely of red, white and blue balloons.
Dorothy Porter, 69, from Winterset was one of the earliest to arrive in support of Bush.
"I'm not either Republican or Democrat -- I vote for the man," she said. "I voted for Clinton, and if he'd been a Republican, I probably would have voted for him then. He [Bush] has got potential; he'll be a good president."
But blind loyalty for Bush? Never. "I don't like ribs -- I hate them," she said, surveying the Bush menu. "Where can you get a sandwich?"