This is a resolute city.
The mighty Mississippi floods its banks here repeatedly, sweeping away millions of dollars in property. But the sturdy townspeople have refused to build jetties, much to the irritation of federal engineers and emergency chiefs. They like their riverbank the way it is, where they can get right up close to the water and study it for themselves. They'll put up with the floods.
They like their presidential politics the same way -- no barriers. So when President Bush and Democratic nominee John Kerry both appeared here Wednesday, at the same time, three blocks apart, few in this struggling city of 98,000 seemed to find it unusual. These are Iowans, after all, smug and secure in their disproportionate political power.
"Iowa's a different state. We dissect candidates up, down, sideways, backwards," said Jerry Messer, head of the AFL-CIO here and a Kerry supporter. "We're spoiled rotten by the caucus."
Never mind that Iowa can contribute only a meager seven electoral votes to the 270 needed to win the White House.
Or that Davenport and surrounding Scott County have only about 100,000 registered voters, who may be more decisive than the rest of the country. Only 4 percent of those polled by the local Quad-City Times newspaper said they hadn't made up their minds in the neck-and-neck race here, which suggests that all the expensive motorcading, Secret Servicing and rhetorical flourishing Wednesday may have been for the benefit of about 4,000 voters here and in neighboring western Illinois.
Why the campaign convergence? Al Gore won Iowa by about 4,100 votes in 2000, in large part thanks to voters here, and Bush strategist Karl Rove later reportedly rued that the campaign plane was too big to land at any airport in eastern Iowa. And with both campaigns having announced their events -- an economic town hall meeting for Kerry, a riverside rally for Bush -- neither man was going to step down.
"We were here first," said Kerry spokeswoman Debra DeShong.
"Certainly we are going to travel to very competitive states," said Bush spokesman Scott Stanzel, explaining the president's trip had been in the works for "weeks" but declining to say how many weeks. Davenport police Lt. Don Gano said he received word of the dueling trips "about a week ago."
While Kerry fielded questions on more jobs for Davenport, which has the highest unemployment rate in the state, and Bush claimed he had helped farmers and ranchers, enterprising bandits made their own economic opportunity: With nearly every local officer on security detail downtown, armed robbers a few miles away committed three bank heists in quick succession, according to Gano.
Despite the similarity in scheduling, the campaign events were strikingly different.
Kerry went for voters' brains. At an invitation-only economic summit for 300, the Massachusetts senator surrounded himself with local labor and business leaders, as well as corporate executives who have endorsed him. Linda Bloodsworth was there -- the one who owns Quad Cities Metallurgical Laboratory, not the Linda Bloodworth who helped burnish Bill Clinton's telegenicity. So was Peter Chernin, president of News Corp., which owns Fox News, often criticized by Democrats for perceived bias in favor of Bush. And Bank of America chief Charles Gifford. After brief remarks, Kerry led the crew at a long table in a serious, wonkish discussion of policy.
Bush went for voters' hearts. His rally featured all the spectacular stagecraft at which this White House excels. Just as Aaron Tippin's "Where the Stars and Stripes and the Eagle Fly" reached a high point -- "I pledge allegiance to the flag / And if that bothers you, well, that's too bad" -- Bush's motorcade came speeding dramatically into the riverfront park, all fast black cars and flashing blue and red lights. The crowd of several thousand, some of whom had lined up four hours earlier for security sweeps, erupted and waved small flags. Three Secret Service sharpshooters projected presidential power, standing atop a white trailer, their eyes trained through high-powered binoculars. Restless children inside the rally enclosure had a choice between a small carnival ride and a petting zoo featuring a dozen baby goats.
His blue shirt sleeves pushed up, the president stood with the river behind him, a highway bridge arcing gracefully away. He offered no new details on his programs for the next few years, sticking to his standard stump speech about keeping America strong and safe. "We stand for things," Bush told the crowd of several thousand. "We stand for something."
Davenport and its people may be a little too complicated for the splinter strategizing in which political consultants indulge, with their talk of a hardened cultural divide. Downtown looks shot. Riverboat gambling was supposed to regenerate the city center; 13 years later, it hasn't. On the other hand, the three casinos in the Quad Cities provide their employees with health insurance.
RiverCenter, the small convention center where Kerry held his town hall, sits astride a closed bank, its drive-in window duct-taped shut, and a tattoo parlor. But a new music museum and performance space has spurred some stylish restaurants to open up. And the city is building a $34 million art museum, where Kerry stopped Wednesday morning to chat up construction workers.
There's been deep job loss, especially in higher-paying manufacturing jobs, although John Deere and Alcoa have started hiring again. The freight trains that rumble along several times a day give an air of industry, just as the old wood-sided houses with their wide, gracious porches and manicured lawns sloping down to the river give an air of prosperity.
In this homogeneous slice of the heartland, Kerry supporters and Bush supporters look and sound very much alike, based on interviews with three dozen voters.
They are overwhelmingly white, reflecting a population that is only 15 percent black, Asian or Latino. They wear trucker hats or Boy Scout uniforms. Both groups carry union cards. Kerry women are just as fond of flag-motif apparel as Bush women.
Asked about the issues most important to them in this election, those on each side list the economy and the nation's safety first or second. Values? No one mentions them. Asked if it matters to her that Kerry favors upholding abortion rights, a Republican woman who remains undecided says, "Well, I'm a Catholic, but no," and she shrugs.
Jeanita McNulty, a GOP team leader, is handing out tickets for the Bush rally. "What saved us after September 11 is that he was in office," she says of the president. "He did an amazing job helping people get through it. That's why I don't worry on a day-by-day basis," in a week when CNN's Anderson Cooper asked viewers, "Did you worry about terrorism when you went to work today?"
"I want to see us protected," agrees Elaine Johnson, who will vote for Bush. "I supported the war, and I still do." Still, as a senior citizen, she knows she wouldn't be able to pay for all her medicine if her late husband's company didn't help with the tab, and she worries about her friends who don't have that benefit.
Tanya Schmidt picks up three Bush rally tickets. She knows about medical bills. At 23, in delinquency for unpaid emergency room visits, she is leaning toward Kerry but wants to hear what the president has to say.
She was laid off from her customer service job in February and hasn't been able to find another job. A biochemistry major at Iowa State University, she ran out of money and dropped out. Her mother and aunt are also out of work. "I need school or work. Something. Something to improve, you know?" she says.
"People look at you like you're a lazy bum, maybe not around here, where so many people are out of work, but other places you go."
Van Symons, a Chinese historian at a local college, also hits the Bush rally with his two children, Diana, a recent college graduate headed to China to teach, and Karl, a college junior. "I abhor the war," he says. "I said this would happen, that we would win the war but lose the peace. We happen to be Mormons," he adds, and his politics puts him at variance with his Bush-supporting family in Utah. "But I'm really interested to hear how [Bush] presents the issues, and to get a balanced view."
For his part, as the river streams quietly past, the president calls for his supporters to rouse "discerning Democrats and wise independents" to his cause.
After the rally, a girl wearing a Kiss T-shirt walks beside her father, who is carrying his Veterans for Bush sign. "What's the matter with gay marriage, Dad? Who's it hurt?"
A trio of young men from Grinnell College debate how democratic discourse is harmed when, as Adam Schwartz puts it, "you stay in your own little isolated group. We don't spend enough time going to each other's parties."
Bush heads to Minnesota. Kerry goes to Missouri. They rally more swing voters before nightfall.
The river flows on past Davenport, one city, under God, divisible, but very politely, resolutely so.