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Mr. Tancredo had a solid performance, broadening his anti-illegal immigration message into a defense of U.S. culture and a strong position on freeing up the military to go after terrorists.

“The only rule of engagement I’m going to have in a Tancredo administration is, ‘We win, you lose,’ ” he said.

He and Mr. Paul acted as consciences for the party, with Mr. Tancredo calling on Republicans to win a battle of cultures in the social debate, and Mr. Paul calling for a return to constitutional principles.

The straw poll was as much a community fair as a political event, which was probably necessary since it competed with the Iowa State Fair a half-hour’s drive away in Des Moines.

The candidates each bought space and set up tents on the lawns surrounding the Hilton Coliseum to ply supporters and undecided voters with drinks, sandwiches and ice cream.

Mr. Romney and Mr. Brownback each had a moonbounce, inflatable slides and a rock-climbing wall. Tommy Thompson had a short miniature-golf course for the children, and Mr. Huckabee had a stage set up for his own band, Capitol Offense, for which he plays bass guitar.

Mr. Brownback tried to one-up the field by having an air-conditioned tent to combat temperatures nearing 100 degrees. Supporters of the Fair Tax, a plan to replace federal income taxes with a national sales tax, had a Ferris wheel.

The official speechmaking was saved for the coliseum. Each candidate had 15 minutes, and each tried to show his strength of support by flooding the space in front of the dais with cheering, sign-waving supporters.

Because of their absences, Mr. McCain and Mr. Giuliani were targets, both from those on the stage and from the groups outside.

“The road to the White House goes through Iowa, and I’m not skipping it,” Mr. Brownback told the crowd.