Kerry energizes drizzled Dems

Peter Gillette

A stump speech by Senator John Kerry, Democratic nominee for president, capped off a drizzly Friday evening for many Lawrentians who sloshed across the river to Alexander Gym. By 8:30 p.m., when the “Kerry/Edwards A Fresh Start For America” buses finally rolled into the circular driveway surrounding the lawn, many Lawrence students, professors, and members of the community from across the political spectrum had already spent over three wet hours waiting for the main event and standing in a security-check line that extended as far back as the Congregational Church also on South River.

A group of protestors from the Lawrence University and Marquette University College Republican chapters faced the line. There were minor skirmishes during Kerry’s speech. (For coverage of the CR protest and their controversial fundraiser, read LUCR on page 2)

While Bush had been flying through the Midwest before his stop in Oshkosh Friday afternoon (See coverage, left) Kerry made his way to Appleton in a good old-fashioned barnstorming.

Beginning the day in Des Moines, Iowa, the Kerry campaign traveled to Milwaukee and Sheboygan by the afternoon. By the time the weekend was through, Kerry’s tour of Midwest swing states led him to Ohio. But for over a half an hour Friday night, the candidate pitched himself as both a champion of the middle class and “a believer in science,” reprising familiar criticisms of Bush foreign policy and the recent tax cuts along the way.

Taking the stage alongside Senator Herb Kohl (D, Wis.) and Governor Jim Doyle, Kerry was greeted with a coordinated chant of “3-4-3,” referring to the Kerry campaign’s confidence that its candidate had “swept” the debates.

(Set to the drum kicks of Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” the campaign chant was taught to the audience by a local alt-country band called “The Wandering Sons.” Speakers throughout the evening prepared the large crowd, getting them ready for the arrival of the national press.)

As he strolled up to the podium that jutted into the north end of the Alexander Gym lawn, Kerry’s dress reinforced his middle class themes: the senator was casually clad in a Carhart jacket, sweatervest, chinos, and New Balance shoes that served to quietly counter his somewhat taciturn television demeanor.

“Seeing [Kerry] in person definitely revealed a personality you don’t see on TV. It makes him more believable,” Lawrence junior Andrew Ritchie said on his way back from the “blue section” (the closest to the stage) to campus. Ritchie added that, since he was already planning on voting for Kerry, the speech didn’t alter his opinion of the candidate substantially.

Students were abuzz walking back from the event, discussing who got closest to Kerry. Kevin White, grinning, added that Kerry “jumped on me.” (Although, he said, not in a threatening way.)

While the body of Kerry’s speech addressed policies, there was a sense in which the tone – as is often the case for political rallies – resembled more of a pep rally, and he began his speech by reaching out to energize the Lawrentians and veterans, respectively, that he could see before him.

Kerry smiled and saluted a few veterans he spotted in the front row before beginning his speech with a shout: “Hello, Lawrence! Hello, Appleton! How are you?” Basking in the applause, he added that it was great to be in the home of the Vikings, and on homecoming weekend, no less.

The Vikings line seemed to receive noticeably less applause, as non-Lawrentians wondered for a moment whether Kerry mistakenly thought he was in Minnesota (and during football season, no less!)

But Kerry recovered with an Appleton-specific one-liner that shows someone was being clever on the bus ride from Sheboygan: “I understand that this is the hometown of Harry Houdini. Well, that’s fitting … because not even Harry Houdini could hide the mistakes of this administration.”

Those who follow politics would not have been particularly surprised by the message of his speech. On the international front, Kerry once again promoted multilateralism and cooperation with other nations, stating, “The U.S. is strongest when it has friends and allies at its side.”

President Bush had asked during the debates how Kerry could ask for allies at the same time that he calls the war “the wrong war at the wrong time.” Perhaps in response to that, Kerry said that “Just because George Bush can’t [spread out the U.S. burden in Iraq] doesn’t mean that it can’t be done.”

The balance of the speech dealt with the Bush tax cut. Saying that take-home pay for the top one percent of wage-earning families is the highest since 1929, Kerry’s cadence grew more forceful as he promised the crowd, “When I’m president of the United States of America, nobody’s going to have to kick me in the rear … to remind me that I’m the champion of the middle class.”

Kerry’s calls for a raise in the minimum wage, recommitment to equal pay for women, a $4,000 tax credit for families of college students, and a rise in federal Perkins loans drew vocal responses from younger members of the crowd.

After outlining his plans for giving “the same healthcare members of Congress receive” to all Americans, Kerry turned to science, using a recent conversation he had with the late Christopher Reeves just two weeks ago to argue for the importance of embryonic stem cell research.

“We’re going to do stem cell research that started here at the University of Wisconsin,” Kerry said. This time it was the students, and not the townies, who wondered if Kerry was sure where he was.

As his speech wound to a close, confetti cannons loomed off to the sides, threatening a boom, and boom they did … for minutes, confetti sprayed into the air as Bruce Springsteen’s “No Surrender” blared on the speakers. As Kerry worked the crowd, Secret Service agents corralled onlookers to clear out his exit path. And, after the throngs squeezed through the exits, a giant, damp field full of pro-Kerry signs (some in Packer colors) and minutes worth of confetti emissions were left for volunteers.

Several Lawrentians volunteered through Lawrence’s VSCS. Their jobs included corralling press, distributing signs, distributing more signs, assisting the handicapped, and – of course, somebody’s got to do it – clean-up.

One volunteer, Susan Stainton, 50, of Appleton, was more than happy to do the gruntwork to keep the event running smoothly, and emphasized that events like Friday’s rally are a crucial part of the democratic process.

“In all my years of voting, no election has been more important than this one. It is especially important to volunteer in this election,” Stanton said, adding that volunteers are “the face of the election.