Leta Wall was in a local Teamsters hall here Wednesday evening as Vice President Gore made his way through the crowd of 400 Democratic Party activists. "I think he's mellowed a lot," said Wall, who remembered Gore from his unsuccessful 1988 campaign. "He makes you feel like he's one of you--and I felt an aloofness before."

Fifteen hours later and about an hour north in Waterloo, Iowa, Lou Anne Zimmerman was standing under a broiling morning sun awaiting the arrival of Texas Gov. George W. Bush. "I'm a modified Bush supporter," Zimmerman said. "I started out as a Bush supporter but decided he was repeating the same thing over and over and wasn't really saying anything new. . . . I don't think he's been explicit enough."

Two voters no more represent the state of Iowa or the country than do a few days encompass a long campaign. But the reactions of Wall and Zimmerman, who came to hear the candidates last week, offered an antidote to perceptions that there is a vast disparity between the highflying campaign of the Republican front-runner and the problem-plagued operation of the Democratic front-runner.

On the ground and in person, candidates Bush and Gore appear more evenly matched than their press clippings suggest. Each has clear strengths, but each also has obvious weaknesses that will be probed repeatedly by their opponents as they seek to become their parties' nominees.

Bush and Gore toured Iowa during a week so filled with presidential campaign activity that it seemed more appropriate for the winter days leading up to the state's precinct caucuses, which traditionally open the presidential nominating season.

But with the Iowa Republican straw poll set for Aug. 14, barely a month away, in Ames, and Gore worried about a challenge from Democrat Bill Bradley, candidate vans and buses were filling town squares from one end of the state to another. Even that inveterate campaigner President Clinton showed up on Friday, though he has nothing to run for.

Gore and Bush kissed babies, shook scores of hands and posed repeatedly for informal snapshots with supporters. Bush invoked his 17-year-old twin daughters to make himself look humble; Gore invoked his new grandson to appear more human. Gore shed his Washington suit and tie and campaigned in khakis, polo shirts and cowboy boots. Bush exuded folksiness but nonetheless stuck to a white shirt and tie, despite hot, humid weather.

Bush appeared more charismatic but delivered his stump speech unevenly. Gore raced through portions of his stump speech but appeared more comfortable discussing a wide range of issues. Bush's message focused on what his administration would be. Gore's speeches overflowed with things to do; in that way at least, he is Clintonian. Gore launched more partisan attacks. Bush said he won't engage in "the old trash-mouth politics" of recent years.

Asked the first things he would do as president, Bush replied, "I'd surround myself with really competent, smart people who will come to Washington to change the whole attitude of zero-sum politics." But he continued to play on public disenchantment of Clinton's behavior as president and won applause whenever he did so.

Clear differences emerged on issues. The two candidates disagreed over how to spend the projected budget surplus. Bush endorsed Republican efforts in Congress to cut taxes, while Gore warned that the GOP plan could hurt the economy and inhibit efforts to reform Social Security and Medicare.

Gore made federal action the centerpiece of his education agenda. Bush said, "I don't trust Washington, D.C., to make the right education decisions." Gore emphasized abortion rights, women's rights, affirmative action and gun control--all issues on which he and Bush disagree and that can motivate key voter groups.

Bush acknowledged he has much to learn, but he appeared slightly annoyed when reporters swarmed around a young man whose questions about soil conservation had elicited a response from Bush that he didn't know much about the issue. Bush broke off from hand-shaking to eavesdrop and get further explanation.

Gore reveled in displaying his expertise on issues but often overloaded his audiences with long, detailed answers. Asked about guns and youth violence, he replied, "Guns are a major part of the problem, but let's put it in context." By the time he got back to guns, he had talked about strengthening families, drug treatment, prosecutors, second-chance schools, better schools, preschool, victims rights and domestic violence.

Bush tirelessly shook hands with voters along the rope lines but did not stand up and answer voters' questions, as is the tradition here--and as his Republican rivals did last week. "I thought he would say some things about the issues," Mary Koop Clausen said when Bush appeared briefly at a Webster City restaurant. Nonetheless, Clausen said she's a Bush supporter.

Bush said there was "ample time" for more detailed policy discussions. "There's a pace to a campaign that's important to maintain," he told reporters. "We've got a strategy. By the time the main events begin, I will have laid out what I intend to lay out."

Bush told audiences that he knows it is a big step to go from governor to president, adding, "But I've had some pretty good training." Bush meant his experience as the governor of Texas, but his audiences chuckled knowingly, assuming he referred to being the son of a former president.

For some voters, that asset is all they need to support him. "If he's like his dad, he'll be great," said Lesley Reinertson of Jessup.

Other voters disposed to support him worried about Bush's preparation. "I'd like to think it will work out for Bush," said Bob McKinstry of Waterloo. "I liked what I heard, but gee, I wish he had a little more experience."

Gore's campaign projected the trappings of incumbency: a big Air Force plane, a Secret Service motorcade and numerous aides. But it was a reminder that his service as Clinton's vice president is a mixed blessing.

"He doesn't have a chance following on the heels of President Clinton," said Bill Conroy, a conservative Democrat from Jefferson. "I wish he did, but I don't think he's the man to be president."

Other Democrats said the vice president should have been more outspoken about Clinton last year, but Helen Hanson of Cedar Rapids disagreed. "I think he's got pretty good ideas on the family and education and helping senior citizens," she said. "And I can understand completely why he kept a little quiet last year because I'd have done the same."

Although each was in the other's sights last week, Bush and Gore have more immediate problems to worry about. Bush must navigate the Ames straw poll and coming challenges from Republican opponents. Gore must put his demoralized campaign organization together and engage in a potentially costly fight against Bradley.

But the brief preview in Iowa last week suggested that, if the two front-runners eventually meet in the general election, it should be a worthy fight.

CAPTION: Rosanne Freeburg, president of "Grandmas for George Bush," talks with the Republican front-runner for the 2000 presidential nomination after a rally in Waterloo, Iowa.

CAPTION: Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Patty Judge and Vice President Gore, the Democratic front-runner, share a laugh with farmers at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids.