It's nearing midnight, the wind gusting, the dark air unseasonably warm -- spooky October surprise weather. About 30 John Kerry volunteers are out on the airport tarmac, peering up at the candidate's plane, which has just arrived from Miami, and before that West Palm Beach, and before that Orlando.
Told to unload baggage, they don't move. They need to see the man with their own eyes first. Scores of media and Kerry staffers straggle down the plane stairs, until the jet looks, through the cabin windows, completely emptied out. Where is he????
"He's probably asleep," says Patrick Davis, a student at Lawrence University here.
"I hope so," says Davis's friend Kim Manley. "He better be asleep." They then discuss whether Kerry's appointed hotel is the best one for his overnight rejuvenation, and decide that it is, because that is where the Packers stay. They hope that the Radisson has a presidential suite, and their man can be tucked into bed in it.
"Now remember," says another volunteer, because she sees the eagerness with which digital cameras are being hoisted to the eye, "they told us not to yell at him and attract his attention because he needs to get out of here and get his sleep."
Obediently, they all troop off to get the baggage and never see Kerry bound down the steps, giving a jaunty wave and flashing those white teeth for the lone television pool camera.
Three more days to go, the very last three of a campaign Kerry began 22 months ago or 45 years ago in boarding school, depending on who's keeping the score. Discipline is what's called for now, the candidate reaching for some inner superhuman who can project warmth and enthusiasm while staying on message. But discipline must duke it out with exhaustion and the emotional tumult it fosters.
In the span of hours, a rally of 80,000 in Madison can bring euphoria, rapidly followed by a bearded man in a turban bringing anxiety. The anticipated dawning of Nov. 2, the Day of the Dead, is alternately welcomed and dreaded. That wizard of Bushian politics, Karl Rove, presumably has just launched his mysterious 72-hour project, intended to drive the Republican base to the polls. Everybody seems eager and jumpy -- operatives and regular voters alike.
In the morning, the weather has turned cold and intermittently rainy on a muddy field outside a middle school, where several hundred have gathered for a Kerry rally, the first of three on Saturday. "I'm very nervous," says Erica Bauer, 21, a college junior in Chicago, who has returned to her native swing state to vote. She's a resident assistant in her dorm at Loyola University and has taken to noticing who has the Kerry signs and who has the Bush signs. Some polls show young voters prefer Kerry over Bush by 10 points, but Bauer can't shrug off that the signs she sees are about even.
Nearby, a lady in a Halloween sweater, holding a "Women for Kerry" sign, keeps glancing over her shoulder, across an expanse of muddy grass, outside the roped-off area. There is space for hundreds more supporters than have showed up, and the emptiness and the whipping winds make it hard for the Kerry people to keep steady their giant signs and huge flags, and block the Bush people, with theirs, from getting onto CNN. "Baby killers!" pierces the air, shouted through a megaphone by a Bush supporter. Grinning with delight as people stare, he stands in a tight knot of others, including a woman holding a sign that reads "44 million babies aborted; 1000 killed in Iraq."
Kerry people raise their "Three more days to fresh start" higher into the air.
The Democratic challenger was in this same college town, with its wood-shingled Victorians spattered with gold leaves, only two weeks ago. President Bush is spending part of the afternoon a half-hour up the road, near Green Bay. On Sunday, they're both back in the state again. Although Wisconsin, with 10 electoral votes, has a Democratic governor and two Democratic senators, the candidates are neck and neck here. Bush won this county by 10 percent over Al Gore in 2000, but Gore won Wisconsin with heavy turnout in Milwaukee and Madison. Since then, the state has lost nearly 68,000 manufacturing jobs, according to Kerry staffers, and household bankruptcies are up 60 percent.
Joyce and Vernon Fox are registered independents in this famously independent state. They went to a Bush rally earlier this month to hear what the president had to say, and now they're here, decided voters wearing Kerry buttons. "We believe he's best for us," he says, "being senior citizens." Joyce is 67, and Vern is 70, but they're still working part time at a catalogue company to supplement their retirement funds. A woman attending her third Kerry rally will give only her first name of Mary. "We're steadfast Democrats, but the bosses are Republicans, and in this economy, well, you can't risk anything."
She loves Kerry, though, and will help in her own secret way, she says.
When Kerry hops onto the stage in his lucky mustard-gold barn jacket, he not only pumps his fist into the air, he actually blows a kiss or two.
"I feel good!" Kerry shouts. "I got a little bit of a spring in my step this morning. I get to walk around and tell people that Bruce Springsteen is opening up for me. I woke up this morning, and I just felt good. We're moving. We're moving."
"You get three more days to make me president," he says, "and then you get four years of me showing you how much I love you."
He cops a style from John Edwards: "In three days, a woman or a husband is going to walk into that polling booth, and they're going to think about their spouse that left to go to Iraq months ago, maybe close to a year ago. And they're going to wonder how long that spouse is going to have to stay in Iraq, and the kids are going to be wondering, Daddy, Mommy, when are you coming home? Are you coming home?!"
He grabs a phrase from Howard Dean: "You have the power."
And he reminds those gathered about daylight saving time.
"Tonight you've got to remember to turn those clocks back one hour," says Kerry, "and if you don't turn them back one hour and you wind up not voting on Tuesday, George Bush is going to turn the clock back 30 years," and the crowd roars.
Time waits for no man, but man insists on fiddling with it anyway, bringing, at the very least, John Kerry an extra precious hour of sleep.