President Bush and Sen. John Kerry clashed at close quarters along the banks of the Mississippi River on Wednesday, the Republican incumbent pledging to "spread ownership and opportunity" if re-elected while his Democratic challenger campaigned as a fiscal conservative able and eager to fix the economy.
Both men reached out to independent and crossover votes in late morning appearances three blocks apart that made one small city ground zero in their close, cross-country campaign for the White House.
"Don't overlook discerning Democrats and wise independents," Bush urged GOP activists attending an outdoor rally and eager to register new voters for the November election.
"I have to tell you that I think labels are very misleading. You've got to look at what people fight for and what they do," Kerry said.
Downtown Davenport was as close as the two men have been to each other since the beginning of the campaign — and likely the closest they will be until their first nationally televised debate this fall.
And if it were coincidence that brought them to the same river city of 98,000 on the same day, there was no mystery about the attraction.
Bush lost Iowa to Al Gore by 4,144 votes in 2000 — and Scott County around Davenport narrowly as well — and wants the state in his column come November. So does Kerry, whose path to victory calls for holding all states that voted for the Democratic ticket in the last election while adding some that went the other way.
For his part, the Massachusetts senator couldn't resist a good-natured jab at the president.
"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," he said with a smile — a twist on Bush's frequent campaign claim that America has turned a corner and is not turning back.
Asked what Kerry was doing in town, Bush had a two-word answer: "Ask him."
In their appearances, it was as though the two rivals saw different countries. Bush described a nation on the mend after recession and terrorist attacks, while Kerry looked out across a land he said has suffered mismanagement and needs fixing.
"Because we acted, America has added more than 1.5 million new jobs over the past year. Because we acted, Iowa has added more than 11,000 jobs over the past year," the president told a downtown outdoor rally. "Because we acted, Iowa's unemployment rate is now 4.3 percent."
Countered Kerry: "We've lost in the last four years 1.8 million private sector jobs in America, 250,000 right here in Iowa."
State unemployment stood at 3 percent when Bush took office in January 2001. It reached a high of 4.7 percent in July 2003.
Apart from the economy, Bush claimed progress on education, health care, agriculture and the war on terror, and defended his decision to invade Iraq in 2003. "We've come through much together. We've done hard work," said the Republican, his sleeves rolled up to his elbow. "During the next four years, we will spread ownership and opportunity all throughout our land."
Kerry was in a suit and tie for his campaign-organized summit with business leaders — and he pledged to run the government as though he was one of them. "This is the largest group of business people that have assembled in this way at this point in the campaign to stand up and say we need a change," he said.
"John Edwards and I are going to put back in place fiscal responsibility. We're going to run the federal government with the kind of discipline you run your business," said Kerry, who has promised to cut the federal deficit in half during his first term.
For all the campaign hoopla, not everyone in Davenport was focused on politics during the day. Police reported three bank robberies during the time the two candidates were there drawing attention as well as law enforcement personnel to their appearances.
Bush and Kerry converged on Iowa while their running mates hit other battleground states.
Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards campaigned in Arkansas, where he echoed Kerry's theme that the economy has suffered under Republican rule. The North Carolina senator said small businesses and working-class families have suffered since Bush took office, with people in 61,000 Arkansas homes losing health insurance and 30,000 Arkansas manufacturing jobs disappearing.
"It doesn't have to be that way. We can lift up and strengthen your families," Edwards said, promising tax breaks to cover insurance premiums, a $4,000 tax break for college tuition and an increase in the minimum wage.
Bush took a jab during the day at Edwards, a trial lawyer before his election to the Senate in 1998.
"To improve health care we must end the frivolous lawsuits that raise health care costs and drive doctors out of medicine," he said. "You cannot be pro-patient and pro-doctor and pro-trial lawyer at the same time. You have to choose. My opponent made his choice and he put him on the ticket."
Cheney, too, campaigned in a battleground state, visiting a cabinet factory in LaCrosse, Wis., and touting the tax cuts approved since Republicans took office nearly four years ago.
"Wisconsin's economy is getting stronger every day," Cheney told about 400 WalzCraft employees, adding that the tax cuts passed by Congress and signed into law by Bush have returned hundreds of dollars to average American workers.
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