The old soldiers came to reenact the Vietnam War here Wednesday on the plains of central Texas.

Their commanding generals: John F. Kerry and President Bush.

Their mission: An exchange of letters.

The result: Pure farce.

The Kerry campaign announced Wednesday morning that it would surprise Bush by sending former senator Max Cleland (D-Ga.), who lost three limbs in Vietnam, to his ranch here with a letter asking the president to denounce criticism of Kerry's war record. But the Bush campaign got word of the stunt -- perhaps because it was reported on CNN -- and had its own Vietnam veteran waiting for Cleland with a letter defending the criticism of Kerry.

With about 30 journalists watching, the two veterans circled each other in the 95-degree heat at a checkpoint outside the ranch, holding their letters as if they were hand grenades. Then -- without exchanging letters -- the two retreated to face the cameras at a nearby schoolyard, Cleland demanding Bush denounce ads by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and the Bush veteran, identified by the White House as "a representative of the campaign," praising one of the group's ads as "very telling."

Presidential campaigns always have an element of political theater, but Wednesday's showdown by the two campaigns at a bend in Prairie Chapel Road was worthy of Broadway. And the White House press corps, starved for action after a week of inactivity, was a willing audience.

As Cleland's white Cadillac approached the checkpoint near Bush's ranch, a Bush aide signaled another Bush aide, who signaled a third, whereupon a man in a Veterans of Foreign Wars cap and a tie with a shotgun-shell print walked up to meet Cleland.

"I have a letter for the president of the United States, and I'd like to hand it to the Secret Service gentleman here," Cleland announced to the media mob.

The man in the VFW cap, who turned out to be Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, said he would take the letter.

"I'd like to hand it to a responsible official here at the gate," Cleland said.

"Senator, I'm the responsible official," rejoined Patterson.

"I'd like to hand it to a Secret Service gentleman who works for the president of the United States so I make sure it gets to him, please."

But the agent walked away from Cleland's wheelchair. Cleland then offered the letter to a Texas state trooper, who declined it.

"I'd be happy to take the letter," Patterson repeated.

Cleland ignored him. "Did I see correctly that the Secret Service gentleman evaded and avoided me here?"

"Nobody's avoiding you, sir," Patterson said calmly. "I'm here to take the letter."

This was not good enough for Cleland. "I'm just going to return the letter and make sure it gets in the mail," he said, and he hopped from his wheelchair to his car, which drove away.

"I can get the letter from you up there in Crawford," Patterson called after the car.

Patterson then announced to the journalists that he had a letter for Cleland to deliver to Kerry. An aide to Cleland said she would give him Patterson's letter. "Can you hand over the letter?" she asked.

Patterson refused. "I want to give it to the senator." With that, Patterson, too, departed.

A few minutes later, the two men arrived at the nearby public school, where the cameras were waiting. "We're having to go through Vietnam again," Cleland lamented, though he seemed to be enjoying the combat. "Stop this insanity!" With Patterson in pursuit, Cleland wheeled back to his car and escaped without handing over the letter.

"He's quite mobile in that thing," Patterson marveled.

The Democratic entourage left copies of Cleland's undelivered letter calling on Bush to "specifically condemn the recent attack ads" and to "cease and desist."

Asked about the anti-Kerry veterans group, Patterson said, "The Swift boat folks have a right to their piece," adding that he had seen the group's ad criticizing Kerry's antiwar efforts. "It's a very telling ad," he said. The Bush veteran distributed copies of the undelivered letter to Kerry, which Patterson said had been written by the Bush campaign.

Kerry cannot "say that only those veterans who agree with you have a right to speak up," it said. "We urge you to condemn the double standard that you and your campaign have enforced regarding a veteran's right to openly express their feelings about your activities on return from Vietnam."

-- Dana Milbank

Outside President Bush's ranch, Vietnam veteran Max Cleland, left, and former Green Beret Jim Rassmann, center, try to deliver a protest about anti-Kerry ads to a presidential security officer.