By Michael D. Shear and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 10, 2008
WAUKESHA, Wis., Oct. 9 -- There were shouts of "Nobama" and "Socialist" at the mention of the Democratic presidential nominee. There were boos, middle fingers turned up and thumbs turned down as a media caravan moved through the crowd Thursday for a midday town hall gathering featuring John McCain and Sarah Palin.
"It is absolutely vital that you take it to Obama, that you hit him where it hits, there's a soft spot," said James T. Harris, a local radio talk show host, who urged the Republican nominee to use Barack Obama's controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., and others against him.
"We have the good Reverend Wright. We have [the Rev. Michael L.] Pfleger. We have all of these shady characters that have surrounded him," Harris bellowed. "We have corruption here in Wisconsin and voting across the nation. I am begging you, sir. I am begging you. Take it to him."
The crowd of thousands roared its approval.
In recent days, a campaign that embraced the mantra of "Country First" but is flagging in the polls and scrambling for a way to close the gap as the nation's economy slides into shambles has found itself at the center of an outpouring of raw emotion rare in a presidential race.
"There's 26 days and people are looking at the very serious possibility that there's a chance that Obama might get in, and they don't like that," said Ian Eltrich, 28, as he filed out of the crowded sports complex.
"I'm mad! I'm really mad!" another man said, taking the microphone and refusing to surrender it easily, even when McCain tried to agree with him.
"I'm not done. Lemme finish, please," he said after a standing ovation. "When you have Obama, [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi and the rest of the hooligans up there going to run the country, we have to have our head examined.
"It's time that you two represent the rest of us. So go get 'em."
The crowd burst into loud chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!"
Standing at the center of the crowd, McCain and Palin drew on the crowd's energy as they repeatedly trained their fire on Obama.
"Senator Obama has a clear radical, far-left, pro-abortion record," McCain said after being asked about the issue.
The answer prompted a shower of boos from the crowd members. They booed again when he mentioned William Ayers, who bombed U.S. facilities to protest the Vietnam War as part of the domestic terrorist group the Weather Underground. They booed again at the mention of Rep. Barney Frank, a liberal from Massachusetts.
McCain spends most of his time at his rallies and town hall meetings lambasting his rival, often calling him a "co-conspirator" with congressional Democrats in what he argues are the seeds of the financial crisis at mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
"Will you assure us," one woman asked, "that, as president, you will take immediate action to investigate, prosecute and name the names of the people actually responsible?"
"I will," McCain answered.
"The same people that are now claiming credit for this rescue are the same ones that were willing co-conspirators in causing this problem that it is," he said, raising his voice to be heard over the crowd. "You know their names. You will know more of their names."
The crowds that show up for his rallies these days appear to have little appetite for the talk of bipartisan compromise that had been at the heart of his message around the Republican National Convention. During a rally outside a small airport in Mosinee, Wis., on Thursday, McCain said that "it's time we come together, Democrats and Republicans to work together. That's my record. I'll reach across the aisle."
The crowd stood silent.
At the town hall gathering here, McCain praised Harris for his "courage" in speaking his mind. But, heedful of the economic chaos gripping the country, McCain sought to steer away, at least briefly, from attacks on Obama's character and integrity.
"Yes, I'll do that," he said of the request to "take it to" Obama. "But I also, my friends, want to address the greatest financial challenge of our lifetime with a positive plan for action that Senator Obama and I have. We need to restore hope and trust and confidence in America and have Americans know that our best days are ahead of us. That's the future and strength and beauty of America."
As the crowd filed out, several said they agreed with the man who said he was mad. Others went further.
"No, I'm not mad, I'm pissed," said Joan Schmitz, who owns a plumbing company here. She said she was frustrated with polls showing Obama surging, McCain's performance in a Tuesday night debate, Obama himself, the media, and the liberal group ACORN, which she said was registering voters fraudulently.
Noting Obama's connections with Ayers, she said that "if it was a Republican, it would be nonstop," referring to what she said was the media ignoring the controversial acquaintance.
"I can't stand to look at him, I don't trust him. I don't like the circle of friends he keeps, I don't like his policies," Schmitz said of Obama. "I'm pissed off by it. I'm beyond mad. How is he climbing up in the polls?"
On the way into the event, the Republican Party of Wisconsin handed out fliers reading "Your Vote Is Being Stolen," an anti-ACORN leaflet that concluded, "Why is vote fraud allowed? Vote fraud is allowed since it benefits Democrats."
The crowd showed equal disdain for the media, fueled by comments from Palin, who encouraged the Republican supporters to take the campaign's message around the media. "I can't pick a fight with those who buy ink by the barrel," she said. "It's dangerous territory whenever I suggest the mainstream media isn't asking all the questions."
That message was clearly shared among the crowd. Mike Payne, who traveled from Madison, Wis., for the rally, rejected the idea that McCain's supporters are angry, preferring to use the word "frustrated."
"It might have something to do with you guys," he told a reporter.
"It's not anger at all. It's frustration. There's millions of people around the country that think like we do. You guys refuse to acknowledge that, and you insult our intelligence by misreporting the information. You are treating [Obama] like he's Britney Spears and covering him like he's Paris Hilton, instead of the next president of the United States, potentially."
McCain advisers dismissed the crowd's angry tone as an exception and not representative of most of the campaign's events. And they noted that those gathered seemed most upset by the media's handling of the contest, and simply wanted McCain to be more aggressive.
They also noted that many of McCain's events are attended by liberal protesters, who often yell epithets and hold angry signs as McCain's bus drives by. And they recalled angry words from Obama at a rally in Las Vegas last month, in which he urged supporters to talk to their friends and neighbors, saying "I want you to argue with them and get in their face."