Presidential Candidates Stack Deck in Iowa Vote

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IF you're planning a vacation to Iowa this weekend, keep your eye on the corn. It may be the only thing that's native.

Republicans by the busload are descending on Iowa for tomorrow's straw poll, a kind of practice primary for presidential contenders. Held in a handful of states, these events are typically little more than party fund-raisers with minor political significance.

Does anyone remember Sen. Alan Cranston of California winning the 1993 Democratic straw poll in Wisconsin?

But this isn't just another state. The Iowa caucuses are the first stop on the 1996 campaign tour. They are all important, especially for candidates trying to break from the pack.

In previous years, the straw poll has provided an early clue to what will happen - as well as insights into the strength of various GOP constituencies and candidates' political machines.

Pat Robertson, for instance, won the poll in 1987, signaling the rise of the Christian right, and took a strong second in caucuses the following February, ahead of Vice President Bush. Since then, the event has become a national headline.

Padding the cheering section

To ensure a strong showing this year, candidates are padding their cheering sections. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas and conservative columnist Pat Buchanan are bringing in out-of-state supporters by the busload. Famous non-Iowans Charleton Heston and football coach Mike Ditka will be on hand to shoot turkeys with Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, who also has a fleet of buses on the road. Too far away to drive, friends of former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander have chartered planes.

"It's a dress rehearsal for the caucuses," says Hugh Weinbrenner, a political analyst at Drake University in Des Moines. "Bob Dole will try to prove that he merits the No. 1 position in the race. The others will try to embarrass him."

Indeed, for all of the campaigns, the event will be an opportunity to test their organizations. "We'll evaluate the performance of the Buchanan leader in each county, and eliminate those who are not effective," says Marlene Elwell in the Des Moines office of Pat Buchanan.

The event is also important below the presidential level. With some 8,000 people expected to participate - in other words, buy tickets to the straw poll dinner - it's a cash cow for the Iowa Republican Party, which hopes to complete its takeover of the state next year by capturing the last two Democratic holdouts: the state Senate and the seat of US Sen. Tom Harkin.

"It will be the biggest fund-raising event in the history of Iowa," says Gov. …