David Michael Miller
Kerry thanks Wisconsin for voting for him in '04 and says that today, 'This is about as important as it gets.'
The first person I run into at the Barack Obama rally at the Capitol on Tuesday afternoon hands me a Nader-Gonzalez leaflet. The second person I encounter hands me a McKinney-Clemente pamphlet.
God, I love Madison. All viewpoints represented, all the time.
But most of the people with clipboards and fliers at the rally are Obama organizers. As Natty Nation plays warm-up tunes, they're asking people coming up the State Street Capitol steps, "Have you signed in?"
"Do I have to?" asks one nonplussed attendee. "We just want to get an accurate idea of how many people are attending," the volunteers respond, but they're getting a lot of "maybe later"'s to the signing-in option.
Today's rally, with John Kerry as lead speaker, is a "Vote Early" push, trying to energize people to register to vote early or even vote early. This is meant to stem any last minute, election-day snafus. It will also free up Obama supporters to do poll and get-out-the-vote work on Election Day instead of spending time voting.
One Obama volunteer tells me she's already had trouble registering three new voters in Mazomanie because they didn't have Wisconsin driver's licenses, which are not in fact a requirement for registering to vote.
Who is not early is John Kerry, as the rally -- scheduled to start at 3:30 p.m. -- wavers off course as Natty Nation stops playing at 3:45 p.m.
A group of 30-40 McCain supporters, mostly student-age, march into the crowd with McCain-Palin placards and handmade signs reading "Wisconsin [hearts] Cindy," "Students with a Brain for McCain" and "Men for Palin."
"You have got to be kidding," says the guy next to me.
They stand off to one side of the steps on the grass. One young McCain supporter wearing a sweatshirt that reads "Jeremiah 1:5 'Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you...'" says that she's a UW student who came to the Obama rally "not to be rude about it, but we wanted to voice our support for McCain. But silently." The Obama supporters eventually block off the McCain contingent with a large American flag banner.
Some chants get started -- Obama supporters direct a few "U.S.A.!"s toward the McCain supporters, then launch into "Obama oh-eight, be a part of something great" and "Yes we can" as a tape of Dixieland-style jazz plays incongruously in the background. It becomes clear, though, that this rally needs a speaker, and soon, before the crowd -- I estimate 250-300 people -- begins to wander off.
Kerry, Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk and Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz finally take the stage around 4:15 pm. A genial Cieslewicz copes with a malfunctioning mic with aplomb as Kerry helps him fix it: "Just think of how many things he'd have fixed if he'd been president," quips Mayor Dave.
Falk takes over with more rabble-rousing fervor. She points out that Kerry won Wisconsin last time by 5,000 votes, about 1%, a margin so slim no one is comfortable with it. Falk urges people to go to the city clerk's office to vote after the rally; the office will be open until 7 p.m.
Tammy Baldwin addresses the main problem with rallies like this one -- that they don't seem to be swaying undecided voters but preaching to the converted. Here, the converted are being asked to go out and convert others. "Each one of you has a decisive role," says Baldwin. "Talk to your friends and co-workers." If you think they're wavering about voting or not on election day, encourage them -- get them to the polls, says Baldwin.
When Kerry takes the mic, he refers to the last time he appeared at a rally in Madison, just days before the 2004 election, along with Bruce Springsteen, before a crowd of some 80,000 on West Washington Avenue. He thanks Wisconsin for voting for him in '04 and says that today, "This is about as important as it gets. I'm not here to throw red meat. This is too important." He is here not to throw zingers about the meltdown of the McCain campaign but to talk about the issues and why Obama and Biden have better ideas.
But the loudest, most ebulliant cheers of the afternoon come in response to Kerry's undeniably true statement: "Ninety-seven days from now, George Bush will leave Washington."
That's an event that the Obama, McKinney, Nader and McCain contingents can all get behind.