"It's one of my favorite days," Laudner said. "You can't name another event like it."
Robinson agreed. "I think there is magic in it. If we don't have the straw poll, all we have as a tangible thing to look at is FEC reports," he said, referring to Federal Election Commission campaign finance statements. "They aren't binding either, right? But this is an actual test: Can you convince people to go to Ames to vote for you? There are consequences to it. If you don't perform, you could get knocked out."
Only six of the nine declared Republican presidential contenders are participating. The presumptive front-runner, Romney, who impressed crowds in 2007 by bringing two semi-trucks full of Hickory Park barbecue, is sitting it out. So are former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and cash-poor Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who would have been a formidable contender here, is instead visiting South Carolina on Saturday to make his presidential intentions known. The timing has ticked off some vocal Iowa Republicans, who say he is trying to overshadow their event.
But nothing, not bad weather nor competing political agendas, will dampen the festivities.
Bachmann, who is bringing a petting zoo, has engaged country music star Randy Travis. "Rick Santorum's Summer Dance Party" will feature Buddy Holly's band, the Crickets, and the Big Bopper Jr. (Holly and the Big Bopper, along with Ritchie Valens, died in a plane crash in Clear Lake, Iowa, in 1959). Guitar-playing former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa Republican presidential caucus in 2008, will jam on Santorum's stage and also perform with candidate Herman Cain, the former Godfather's Pizza chief executive who is serving — what else? — pizza slices at his tent.
And Paul, whose single-minded devotion to fiscal restraint at a time of intense debate over the national debt has launched him from fringe candidate to a potentially competitive position, will keep the younger crowds entertained at "Paul's Prosperity Playground."
There, he will have a "Dump Ben Bernanke" dunk tank and an inflatable "Sliding Dollar" slide.