They came in sleek aluminium-sided coaches and creaky yellow school buses from Mason City and Ottumwa, Council Bluffs and Cedar Rapids, the small towns of a rural state that becomes the centre of American politics for a few days every four years.
There were always two races in the Ames straw poll, a small, undemocratic vote which offers the best insight this year into the chances of the Republican candidates for next year's presidential election. One was for the winner, the mainstream candidate for the party. The other, in a state with plenty of conservatives, was for the leading right-wing challenger, and it was this above all which was open to the voters to decide.
They came in far larger numbers than the organisers had expected: 25,000 voted, when 15,000 had been anticipated. They swarmed into the stalls set up by each candidate, queuing for barbecued pork and beans with a glass of iced lemonade as the sun bore down, or cooling themselves in the air-conditioned tent of Steve Forbes, the wealthy publisher. They tapped their feet to the country music in George W Bush's compound, or swayed to Vic Damone at the homely place of the senator Orrin Hatch.
Then they voted for their favourites, crowding into the Hilton Coliseum, their allegiances inscribed on their hats, their T-shirts, their badges and the labels around their necks: Bush, Forbes, Buchanan, Bauer, Dole, Keyes, Hatch, Dole, Quayle, Alexander.
Like medieval soldiers they bore their colours: the sombre red and black of Lamar Alexander, the perky lemon yellow of Elizabeth Dole, the dignified navy blue of George W Bush and the bright orange T-shirts of Steve Forbes.
From the steady stream of orange by early afternoon it was clear that Mr Forbes had bought a vast chunk of Iowa, many of them old people on a day out, but he also had committed supporters who saw in this man something different from the mainstream options on offer.
By the time the candidates took the floor the cavernous basketball arena was full. As Mr Forbes stood up the stadium erupted. He delivered a pointed and precise call to arms against Washington, against Democrats, for liberty and free markets. It was a dogged not dazzling performance, but the crowd went wild.
Then came Mr Bush with a forceful delivery and a strong, if vague message. He smiled, he wagged his finger, he frowned and chopped the air as he called for a revival of American values, for conservatism with compassion. "I will build hope in the heartland of America," he said, as the crowd chanted: "Bush! Bush! Bush! Bush!" He gave a confident speech, far from the best of the evening, but he won - by less than he had hoped. Elizabeth Dole, the other centrist candidate, will survive, if battered.
Ames was not, in any sense a democratic affair. This was almost a feudal display: anyone could dragoon their supporters, pay the $25 (15.60) for their tickets, drive them in and take them home again. The 2.8 million Iowans are not representative of the United States and the 25,000 self- selecting citizens who cast their votes on Saturday tell us little about the 260 million Americans.
Mr Bush's victory is still a landmark event, and Mr Forbes' second place is no less important. The Ames straw poll has always been a test of money and organisation, showing who can deliver bodies to the polling booth and who cannot. Mr Forbes looks the best standard bearer for the conservative right, although Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes will continue in the race. Dan Quayle is finished. Mr Forbes emerges as the principal victor, with his ideological and personal attractions highlighted. "He's one of the few candidates who has had a real job," said John Dell, a hospital worker from Malvern, Iowa. "He's pro-life and pro-family."
Mr Bush appeals to a more pragmatic strain in the party. "I believe Bush can beat the Democrats, and I don't think anyone else can," said Dale Watson, a local engineer. The result seems to justify his faith.
The Next Steps
7 February 2000: Iowa - parties select state presidential nominees
15 February: New Hampshire - vote for presidential nominees
5 March: Primary elections in 18 states
14 March: Primaries in seven states
29 July - 4 August: Philadelphia - Republicans select candidate
14 - 17 August: Los Angeles - Democratsselect candidate
4 September: Start of presidential campaign
7 November: Finally, election dayReuse content