President Bush and Democratic challenger John F. Kerry brought their battle for the White House to this Mississippi River town Wednesday, staging dueling campaign events within blocks of each other where they painted sharply contrasting portraits of the economy and U.S. policy in Iraq.
The two candidates' proximity was a coincidence in scheduling, according to both campaigns, but their twin appearances underscored the importance of Iowa in an election that remains a tossup both in this state and nationally.
Bush and Kerry were greeted by a banner headline in the Quad-City Times that read "President Bush, Mr. Kerry, We Want You To Know . . ." and smaller headlines noting that the economy is the number one issue for voters and that an area of the state with a preponderance of swing voters remains up for grabs.
Speaking in shirtsleeves at an outdoor rally at a riverside park, Bush claimed success for his economic policies, noting that Iowa's unemployment rate is below the national average. He predicted that he would carry a state he lost narrowly to former vice president Al Gore four years ago.
"The other folks talk a good game," the president said. "We deliver."
Kerry, who staged an economic summit with business and labor leaders at the indoor River Center, spoke about a different economy, one that has cost Iowa about 25,000 manufacturing jobs in the past four years. He tweaked Bush for saying in the past few days that the economy has turned the corner.
"I guess President Bush is just a few blocks from here," Kerry said as he opened his forum. "It occurred to me that he could come here for a great discussion about America's future if he were really willing to just turn a corner."
Bush and Kerry circled past one another last weekend as they campaigned through Ohio and Pennsylvania, but Wednesday's overlapping events marked the first time they have been in the same place at the same time during the campaign. While local police were providing security for the candidates at the morning events, three nearby banks were robbed within a one-hour period. Authorities provided few details of the holdups and declined to say how much money was taken.
In April, Bush and Kerry attended different ceremonies in Topeka, Kan., marking the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's school-desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education, but those were billed as official, nonpolitical events. There was no such pretense today, as the two campaigns focused on Iowa's seven electoral votes.
"I don't think anyone should be surprised the two may cross paths from time to time, given that certain states are more competitive than others," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.
Bush lost Iowa in 2000 by fewer than 5,000 votes -- out of 1.3 million cast -- and both campaigns see eastern Iowa as particularly crucial to the outcome in November. In the Quad Cities area of Iowa and Illinois, independents significantly outnumber Republicans and Democrats in party registration. The two campaigns view those voters as the key to victory in November.
The president did not acknowledge that his opponent was a mere three blocks away -- or mention him by name. But the president disputed Kerry's bleak portrayal of the economy.
Bush said that Iowa had added 110,000 jobs in the past year and that its unemployment rate stood at 4.3 percent, lower than the national average.
He said pointedly that in this part of the country, where agricultural interests still reign, "I have kept my promise to America's farmers." For the past three years, he said, the net cash income of U.S. farms has reached record levels.
"It is not enough to advocate reform; you have to be able to get it done," Bush said. "We are getting it done."
When he turned to Iraq and efforts to thwart terrorism, Bush added a new twist to his usual remarks. It was an allusion to the widening public disenchantment with the administration's Iraq policies -- and Kerry's criticism of Bush's response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes.
"Those who claim that America's war on terror is to blame for terror threats to the United States have a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the enemy," he said.
After staging a series of rallies on his bus trip in the past five days, Kerry shifted course in Davenport, conducting a sober seminar on the economy in which he accused Bush of squandering the surpluses of the 1990s. "John Edwards and I are going to put back in place fiscal responsibility," he said.
Kerry promoted his plans to expand health care and said he would seek bipartisan support for budget and economic policies that he argued would be good for business and workers alike. With some corporate executives saying Bush's policies in Iraq are hurting American business, Kerry drew his loudest applause when he passionately declared that he can do what Bush has not done to attract international support to the U.S. mission in Iraq.
"It will take a new president of the United States with new credibility to have a fresh start for our country," he said. He added: "I've got big cards to play here to bring others to the table. . . . I will get the target off our troops. I will reduce the number of [U.S.] troops . . . and I will get the world to share in this effort because the world has a stake in it."
Before his morning event, his campaign advisers released the names of about 200 corporate executives who support Kerry. Campaign officials said the level of business support was unprecedented for a Democratic challenger.
Many on the list are well-known Democrats, but the campaign said some have voted Republican in the past. Owsley Brown II, chairman and chief executive of Brown-Forman Corp., said he had reluctantly supported Bush over Gore but backs Kerry now because the Massachusetts senator offers "a whole different depth and breadth of leadership."
The Bush campaign immediately charged that Kerry was trumpeting support from the kinds of business leaders that the Democratic senator denounced as "Benedict Arnold CEOs" during the primaries because they were with firms that have moved jobs overseas. "It's another example of John Kerry saying one thing and doing another," said Bush-Cheney spokesman Steve Schmidt.
But Kerry campaign officials said Kerry's use of the "Benedict Arnold" designation had to do only with firms that incorporated overseas to avoid U.S. tax liabilities, not firms that have engaged in "outsourcing."
Kerry continued his bus trip by heading south along the Mississippi River with a rally scheduled for Wednesday evening in Hannibal, Mo.
From Davenport, the president traveled to a family farm in Le Sueur, Minn., to talk up the administration's conservation policies, then appeared at another campaign rally at an enormous stone quarry in Mankato, Minn.
At the Katzenmeyer farm, he announced three changes to the popular Conservation Reserve Program, a 20-year-old federal effort to reduce soil erosion and conserve wetlands and wildlife by subsidizing farmers to retire part of their cropland.