Abraham Lincoln has the best seat in the house at President Barack Obama's rally on Thursday. The Lincoln statue sits placidly above the people jam-packed onto the University of Wisconsin's Bascom Hill, as if gazing onto the podium down below. National media perch on risers near the stage, confirming the fact that Madison is the center of the political universe for a couple of hours this afternoon.
The soundtrack for the center of the political universe, it turns out, is raucous brass band music. Trumpets and trombones pump out Dixieland to cheer up the people hemmed in like calves in a veal pen. They're truly a captive audience -- they couldn't leave this concert even if they wanted to.
In Romantic novels, the weather matches the characters' state of mind. Here at the rally, the overcast skies and drizzling rain seem to match the Democrats' mood after a lackluster Obama lost the first presidential debate to Mitt Romney on Wednesday night. It could be worse -- tornadoes and thunderstorms. I guess Obama didn't do that badly.
The brass band wraps it up, and the soundtrack changes to Bruce Springsteen and Jackie Wilson over the PA. Any president who thinks to play Jackie Wilson at a rally probably deserves a second term. Just my opinion.
Fresh-faced students file onto a riser behind the podium, waving and smiling. I can't imagine a more appealing-looking set of political props. I'm alarmed, however, when a cameraman standing next to me on the press riser points out a spy among the students: a girl he knows who works for the Republican National Committee. It's true that she doesn't look as happy to be there as the others. Is she planning to shoot spitballs at Obama from behind?
Mayor Paul Soglin comes out to start the round of speeches. Facing an enormous crowd of people, all of them eager for red meat, Soglin gives a shout-out to…infrastructure. Well, we all have our priorities.
By contrast, state Rep. Mark Pocan is happy to throw out the red meat. He has a grand old time whipping up the crowd with call-and-response. "Do you think men named Mitt and Paul and Tommy should make decisions about your health care?" "NOOO!" Pocan's running for U.S. Congress, and he certainly has the lung power for it.
Sen. Herb Kohl, looking thin and frail, is quieter at the podium, but no less passionate. He asks the crowd for one last favor before he retires from politics: "Will you promise me that on November 6 you will elect Tammy Baldwin and Barack Obama?" "YESSSS!"
Right on cue comes Baldwin, with a 100-watt smile visible even to Lincoln way up on the hill. Baldwin has made progress as a speaker since 2010, the last time she opened for Obama in Madison. She has people cheering with well-calibrated lines about the economy growing "from the middle out, not the top down." And she skillfully hits on the one-word theme of the afternoon, visible on a big sign next to the stage. "We believe America moves in one direction: FORWARD!"
When Obama arrives, looking casual in khakis and a jacket, the clouds literally part. Good grief, does this guy have even the sun on his campaign payroll? Surveying the huge audience, he gets them eating out of his hand from the start: "I've been told this is good practice for Halloween on State Street!"
This is not the subdued, diplomatic Obama of the presidential debate. Offering a clue about the way he'll spend the month before the election, the president lights into Mitt Romney with gusto. Referring to Romney's overeager debate performance, he says, "I met this very spirited fellow who looked like Mitt Romney." The conceit is that this "fellow" wasn't the real Romney, having masked his views to appear more moderate.
Aside from this new material on the debate, much of what Obama says is familiar: "We can't afford to double-down on the same trickle-down policies that got us into this mess." "We succeed when everyone has a shot." But he delivers his message so fiercely that you fear for Mitt Romney's safety at the next debate.
Obama has the crowd screaming as he turns up the heat at the end of his speech. "I'm not fighting to create Democratic or Republican jobs, I'm fighting to create American jobs!"
I glance at the Republican spy in the student section. It might be my imagination, but I think even she can't help smiling.