DAVENPORT, Iowa – For the politically inclined, there was no better place to spend a few hours Wednesday than near the banks of the Mississippi River as the downtown business district sprang to life with dueling visits of rival presidential candidates.

Of all the places to go in America, of all the voters to persuade, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry found themselves here, separated by a set of railroad tracks, five city blocks and, perhaps, a slightly wider ideological divide, in a political episode that took on feeling of a Main Street showdown – even accompanied by three bank robberies.

With the rippling river at his back, Bush stood on the band shell at LeClaire Park and gently taunted his challenger, declaring, “The other folks talk a good game, we deliver!” Inside the RiverCenter convention hall, meanwhile, Kerry tried to goad his opponent, saying: “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 the corner.”

In the end, after two hours of speechifying, the political landscape in Davenport may not have shifted, but the back-to-back events offered a window into the final 90 days of the campaign as both candidates concentrate on shoring up their supporters and fighting for a small set of undecided voters in highly targeted regions of the country. And in a race that seems to be frozen in a deadlock, the game of follow-the-leader is just beginning.

“I assumed it was a big accident, but it may have been that they wanted to go head-to-head,” said Davenport Mayor Charlie Brooke, beaming that his town was the first to host both candidates at the same time. “It’s probably our 15 seconds of fame. Usually, the only time we get any national coverage in the last couple of decades has been when something bad has happened, so this is an opportunity for something fun.”

Despite everything, Brooke deemed the day a success. But after Kerry and his convoy headed for Missouri and Bush departed in Air Force One for Minnesota, the Republican mayor confided in an interview that the inspection of the candidates had not resolved a dilemma for him, one shared with other swing voters: Is Bush or Kerry the right candidate?

“Personally, I haven’t made up my mind yet. I’m really a moderate, middle-of-the-road guy, probably about halfway between Kerry and Bush,” Brooke said after the speech, where he was an honored guest of the president. “Bush is a little too far to the right for me, Kerry is a little too far to the left for me. I’m not comfortable with either one of them.”

In all his candor, the mayor seemed to be speaking for the citizenry. The Quad-City Times newspaper devoted its entire front page Wednesday – “Voters equally divided,” one headline read – to the rare political collision and published a poll showing that Kerry would carry Scott County by only 1 percentage point if the election were held today.

The schedules of Kerry and Bush have been bringing them closer and closer, including last weekend when they missed each other by about half an hour in western Pennsylvania. Throughout the spring, Bush followed Kerry’s footsteps as the Democrat traveled the country to talk about jobs, health care and education. And next week, Bush is considering dropping by Seattle on the very day Kerry concludes his cross-country tour there.

“We set the president’s schedule based on what’s right for our campaign, not based on what Senator Kerry might be doing,” said Scott Stanzel, a spokesman for the Bush re-election effort. “I’m not surprised both are campaigning in the same town on the same day. I expect it to happen again, in fact.”

Stephanie Cutter, a spokeswoman for Kerry, replied: “Anytime he is in the same media market with us, it only highlights the world of difference with us.”

As both campaigns carefully follow the playbook from the last presidential election, Iowa is one of the most sought-after destinations for Bush and Kerry. The president lost the state to Al Gore by 4,144 votes in 2000, a statistic he used to remind his supporters on Wednesday of his need for their help.

“We were close in Iowa last time,” Bush told several thousand supporters who gathered on rain-soaked, muddy grass. “Not this time. We’re going to carry it.”

While Rep. Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, dubbed the day “the duel in Davenport,” a title repeated again and again on talk radio here, the candidates actually made little mention of one another and were in no danger of passing on the streets.

A behind-the-scenes tussle between the Republicans and Democrats, however, did unfold in Davenport. Representatives of the Bush campaign tried to reserve the downtown convention center, but they failed to put down a deposit. When Kerry’s staff arrived with deposit check in hand, they got the hall, even though the location was already printed on tickets handed out by the Bush campaign.

As Lt. Gov. Sally Pederson, a Democrat, walked into the Kerry event, she attempted to put a bit of perspective on the historic day, saying: “They are both smart to be here. Obviously, neither one of them was going to back off.”

While his staff may have snagged their preferred location for the “Economic Summit,” Kerry arrived nearly an hour late. Local television stations planned to carry his remarks live – a political bonanza for a candidate who pulled his TV ads to save money for the fall – but his tardiness caused his speech to be pre-empted by the president’s.

“Kerry basically walked away from 50 minutes of free advertising,” said C.J. Beutien, the news director at WQAD-TV, the ABC affiliate. “We were prepared to carry him live until the president arrived. We were a bit annoyed by it.”

During an “economic forum,” the Kerry campaign presented a list of 200 business leaders backing the Democrat, including a handful of Republicans once supportive of Bush. Kerry sought to strike a politically neutral tone, absent the fiery rhetoric of the primary season, when he routinely referred to “Benedict Arnold CEO’s” who ship American jobs overseas.

Even before arriving in Davenport, Kerry tried to show up the president by visiting Cuba City, Wis., where townspeople remain angry at Bush’s decision in May to drive through without stopping. Hundreds of people waved flags as Kerry shook hands in a place known as the “city of presidents,” where red, white and blue shields of every president line Main Street.

One man implored Kerry to return to Cuba City to sign his shield when he is president.

No one hopes it comes true more than Kerry, who replied: “It may be the party of the donkey, but I’ve got a memory like an elephant.”

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