The draw to today's day-before-the-election Obama rally in downtown Madison was twofold: the President and Bruce Springsteen. The story was of a long and tiring election season, with one more day to go.
If you remember the October 2004 John Kerry rally on West Washington Avenue, at which Bruce Springsteen also performed in support of the Democratic candidate for president, this wasn't very much like that one in setting or in scope.
On that day, the long stretch of West Washington created an impressive panorama, a sea of people waving placards, up to the backdrop of the Capitol. At that rally, memorably, some students who'd draped a sign from their West Wash porch inviting Bruce to come on up for a beer were surprised when the Boss actually took them up on their offer.
There was nothing as spontaneous about this rally. Sited on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard between the City County Building and the Madison Municipal building, the principal crowd was extremely circumscribed, with the area directly in front of the stage taken up completely by volunteers, VIPs, some ADA-accessible seating, and the press. The geography of the event also seemed to constrict its enthusiasm level.
Those who waited in line from the State Street entrance to the rally were off to the side, going in the direction of the Capitol. The Capitol was not really a backdrop, and the large American flag hanging from the east face was there in part to cover the scaffolding of a renovation project.
No audience was allowed on the Wilson Street side of the area or on the sidewalk leading into Monona Terrace.
Speculation about the staging of the rally ranged from the position of the sun to security issues to the suggestion that massive turnouts (the 2004 Kerry rally's attendance was estimated at 80,000) are too big of a headache for organizers and the city. Estimates for the attendance of today's rally ranged from 16,000 to 20,000.
Democratic politicians were out in force; Russ Feingold was in attendance, although he didn't speak at the podium. Asked about the election by Suzanne Goldenberg of the Guardian, Feingold stated that putting Janesville U.S. Congressman Paul Ryan on the ballot as Republican candidate for vice president was a big mistake. "You put a guy on the ticket, you expect him to carry the state. That's not going to happen," Feingold said.
Like others in the crowd, Feingold expressed excitement about being able to see the President of the United States, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan (playing this evening in Madison) on the same day.
The first act of the rally was local, with state Sen. Jon Erpenbach kicking things off. Republican nominee Mitt Romney will turn the U.S. into "a members-only country," Erpenbach said.
The familiar "Thank You, Thank You," chant came from the audience to Erpenbach as he concluded. He was followed by local volunteer Darcy Haber, who referred to herself as being "like the President, a recovering attorney and community organizer." Haber urged the crowd of volunteers to "postpone that meeting, step out of the comfort zone" and fill out a yellow volunteer card given to them as they'd entered.
She was followed by the candidate for Tammy Baldwin's congressional seat, state Rep. Mark Pocan, whose speech was likewise aimed at volunteers, urging them to go the extra mile today and tomorrow, to "reach out to five more people, give them rides to the polls, get five more people to go out and vote."
Retiring U.S. Senator Herb Kohl then spoke, endorsing Tammy Baldwin as "incorruptible" and conferring his trademark campaign phrase "Nobody's Senator But Yours" on her in her run for his seat.
Baldwin herself concluded the first act of the rally with further reminders that on election day, voters have a clear choice, which she characterized as between the Republicans' "You're on your own" philosophy and the Democrats' "We're all in this together" sentiment.
Then there was an intermission of sorts, whether intentional or not, of 30 minutes before Bruce Springsteen took the stage with an acoustic guitar and harmonica. He sang a four-song set, including a somewhat impromptu, populist Obama election ditty based on the election slogan "Forward."
It was Springsteen's impassioned speech between that song and his closing number, though, that cemented his status as a modern-day Woody Guthrie -- a direct, commonsense appeal.
His career has centered on "writing about the difference between the American dream and American reality," Springsteen said. Your vote tomorrow, he said, "will determine the distance between the dream and reality."
Springsteen introduced President Obama, who appeared upbeat but somewhat tired at first. He referred to this as "the last day I will ever campaign," and mentioned with some wry amusement the barrage of television commercials that Americans -- at least those in swing states like Wisconsin -- have endured. The President referred to the recent events of Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey: "When tragedy besets the American family, we will carry on, we will be there together," he said. "We rise and fall as one nation and one people."
Obama reminded the crowd of his accomplishments in his first term, and sounded again the refrain that there is a clear choice to be made tomorrow between two different visions for the country.
"Gov. Romney is a very talented salesman," President Obama suggested, but one who "changes the facts, when they are not convenient."
"You know me by now," he said. "You know I say what I mean and mean what I say." Admitting that he too has been frustrated by the pace at which change has taken place, Obama noted that he "has the scars on me to prove" how difficult it is to make change, as well as "the gray hairs on my head."
"The status quo in Washington is fierce," he said.
There was another wry moment as President Obama referred to a current tendency that "romanticizes the last campaign, the posters" -- presumably referring to the iconic Shepard Fairey "Hope" poster -- an oblique nod to enthusiasm that has been somewhat tempered this time around.
His opponents in Washington have "strategized gridlock," he said in conclusion. "Their bet is on cynicism. Wisconsin, my bet is on you." With a final reminder to volunteers to get out there and knock on doors, he finished with the familiar "And God Bless the United States of America."