MADISON, Wis. - This is a town where one can lambaste the president and not be accused of hating freedom. Where the mere mention of Attorney General John Aschroft incites jeers from thousands of people, where a reliable applause line is to pledge to promote alternative energy.
Where it's okay to be a liberal - and proud of it.
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry brought his populist message to this progressive outpost Thursday and reminded Democrats that next week's presidential election isn't about just the war in Iraq, or even the financial squeeze of the middle class, but the need to help those less fortunate, to protect natural resources and to restore America as a role model for the world.
The vocal crowd of more than 80,000 couldn't have been more pleased. While many agreed the war in Iraq is the defining issue of the race, they complained that liberal ideals had been shuffled aside in Kerry's hunt for moderate swing voters.
"It's really important that he talked about environmental protection. That's a big issue in Wisconsin. So many of us are hunters and fishermen and, in Madison, environmentalists," 29-year-old Joseph Bednarowski said after Kerry castigated President Bush for missteps in Iraq, for pandering to the rich and for oblivious arrogance.
"I only wish he were more aggressive against the president."
Kerry was joined by Bruce Springsteen, who thrilled the crowd with Promised Land and the Kerry campaign anthem, No Surrender.
The candidate tweaked his stump speech enough to spark voters like 26-year-old Sarah Lawton, who said she trusts him not "to stack the Supreme Court with justices who will overturn Roe vs. Wade."
"Bush isn't even answering the questions we have," Lawton added as she cradled her infant son. "He's just saying everything's fine, everything's fine about everything, and it isn't very convincing."
Madison, home to the University of Wisconsin, was sandwiched between visits to the University of Toledo and Ohio State University in Columbus. At each stop, Kerry promised research into renewable and alternative energy, so 20 percent of U.S. energy needs would come from such sources by 2020.
"There is no physical or metaphysical way to drill our way out of this predictament. We have to invent our way out of it," Kerry said.
Polls in Wisconsin show the state's 10 electoral votes up for grabs. Kerry plans to return after campaigning today in Orlando and South Florida.
Madison is the hometown of U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, the Senate's lone vote against the USA Patriot Act. When Springsteen criticized Bush for putting Ashcroft over civil rights, the crowd booed louder than ever.
"If there's anything that Madison values above all else, it's free speech," Bednarowski explained. "And in a very literate town, the prospect of having the police look at your library records is not a very appealing one."
Jordon Loeb, 39, a labor lawyer with unruly black hair, said Kerry shares their hometown values. "This city has been committed to the things he's committed to, passionate about social justice, people who know labels like "social conservative' are just a nice way of saying intolerant," he said. "We in Madison are puzzled how "liberal' could be seen as bad."
Will Buege and his friends can't stand it. A dozen or so of them mounted a lonely, if noisy, protest, hanging signs like "4 More Years" on their white Victorian house near the stage. But organizers hung a huge Kerry banner and an American flag on scaffolding out front, blocking their protest.
They felt like Madison's liberal left boot had crushed dissent. "It's only okay to say you're a liberal," said Buege, a 22-year-old journalism major who backs Bush because he opposes abortion.
Madison does convey a certain like-mindedness, a sense among liberals that they are among friends. Up and down W Washington Street, from the state Capitol to the stage, young men and women packed the porches and waved Kerry signs from balconies.
A cardboard sign hanging from the railing on one house said, "Bruce: Come up and have a beer." After he finished his set, as the prospective boss-in-chief began his speech, Springsteen did.
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Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.