LA CROSSE, WI--"Massachusetts," said the man in the Bush/Cheney polo shirt. "Oh gosh, you're going to have big problems with that."
I was afraid of this. I had spent the morning in line outside the local GOP headquarters in hopes of getting a ticket to tomorrow's Bush rally. Once inside, I was asked for a photo id and responded with the only one I have.
"Massachusetts," he repeated, as if straining to get his head around the concept.
"Actually I don't live there anymore," I offered. "And I waited in line just like everybody else."
"Right, but Massachusetts--that's a red flag." He led me over to a table where a stern-looking woman covered in Bush buttons was taking names and handing out tickets from a metal box.
"This man is from Massachusetts," he informed his colleague.
"But I live in New York now," I said, unsure if that was any better.
The woman took the driver's license, inspected it, narrowed her eyes and looked at me. "What are you doing in Wisconsin?"
I was prepared to lie for the ticket, to tell them whatever they wanted to hear. I came out to Wisconsin to experience the heartland, and I was damned if I was going to be denied the ultimate heartland experience of standing with 5000 Bush supporters in a dairy-country hockey rink chanting "Four More Years!"
So I lied, confident my Jedi mind tricks would make quick work of the local Republican storm trooper.
"I'm visiting my girlfriend who works at the university," I said. "We both voted for Giuliani. And we've been straight-ticket Republicans since 9/11. The attacks...changed us."
The storm trooper didn't fall for it. She smelled something and kept sniffing. Where did I go to school? What did I study? Where did I live after school? When was the New York primary? Did I support McCain in 2000.?
I kept my cool and answered her questions, Wisconsin-pleasant throughout the inquisition.
Finally, she produced a Bible.
I was ready to lie, ready to sign a loyalty oath if necessary, but I wasn't ready for this.
"I want you to swear on this Bible," she said. "Look me in the eye and swear that you are really a Republican and promise not to disrupt the rally tomorrow. No signs, no t-shirts--nothing like that."
I hesitated briefly, then did as I was told.
"I am a proud Republican and swear not to disrupt the president's visit to the Onalaska Omni Center tomorrow. So help me God."
The oath finally put my interrogator at ease. In her mind, nobody--not Mohammad Atta, not Gloria Steinem--could put their hand on a Bible and lie so brazenly.
"I'm sorry about all this," she said. "We have to be careful, there are so many nuts out there." She motioned toward some anti-Bush protestors across the street that were visible through the window.
"Oh, believe me," I said, pocketing my ticket, "I understand completely."
It's not just a DNC cliché to say that the Republican party is the party of fear. Wisconsin television in the weeks before the election was saturated with the GOP's big-bad-wolves ad campaign, and the vice president was busy reminding the elderly and rural what a nuclear device would do to their Main Streets. But you have to know fear to peddle it, and the Republicans in La Crosse were genuinely fearful, something that made them seem wounded and weak. What kind of national political force has district leaders in a battleground state who are terrified of people from New England?
Bush's visit was part of dual Wisconsin blitzes. Kerry, Edwards and Cheney also visited the state last week, as did musician-activists Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi and Blink 182, among others. "It feels like we're the center of the world for once," one La Crosse resident told me. "It's kind of nice." The La Crosse Tribune even published a special commemorative front page celebrating Bush's historic visit to the Coulee Region.
But being the center of the world doesn't translate into a more serious campaign. Wisconsin Public Radio offered every presidential candidate on the ballot an hour of uninterrupted interview time in late October. Only Ralph Nader accepted the offer. The Bush and Kerry campaigns claimed they couldn't fit the interviews into their schedules, preferring to rely on 30-second tv spots and scripted stump speeches. Just like everywhere else.
The sky was still black when I arrived at the Omni Center to welcome the president. Again I had to present a photo i.d. with my ticket, and again a GOP gatekeeper's eyes scrunched up at the site of the word "Massachusetts."
"I didn't know we had any of us out there," he said, an eyebrow cocked.
"You ever hear of Mitt Romney?" I asked. He hadn't, and was surprised to learn Massachusetts had a Republican governor.
The rally began with a prayer, led by a local preacher who reminded the faithful of the importance of having "godly persons" like the Bushes in the White House. He then led the crowd in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and singing the National Anthem before a children's choir performed patriotic hymns to which everyone seemed to know the words. Through it all, a stone-faced White House press corps fidgeted in their holding pen by the sound stage, looking like the condemned about to face a firing squad.
Then came the biggest guns in the Wisconsin Republican establishment. Which is to say, then came a string of GOP talking points in the form of ambitious farming town guys with all the charisma of used-truck salesmen. It wasn't just the ones running for state positions that sounded like Rotary Club treasurers in a Sinclair Lewis novel. Tim Michels, a gung-ho former Army Ranger challenging Russ Feingold for his Senate seat, told a rambling story about running into a college buddy in the parking lot at a Packers game, then cited his six-year-old son's fear of terrorists as a reason to vote for him. He was still just a fresh-cheeked farm boy who knew how to operate an M-14--and he was damn proud of it.
The president fit in seamlessly with the morning's program of canned low-wattage pep. He entered the arena with Laura under a torrent of country music and gave a typically stilted, folksy, uninspiring stump speech in front of a green sign declaring, "Protecting Your Family Budget." Bush peaked while telling a story about a Wisconsin woman with eight children--the crowd loved that detail--who started an internet company in her basement. Her company makes doorknobs and employs 20 people. She got some tax relief under the president's tax cut, Bush explained, and if these tax cuts are repealed, she won't be able to hire employee number 21. Then there was some coded abortion stuff, something about a milk subsidy, lots of cheering and almost nothing about Iraq.
By the time Bush was winding up his remarks, my legs hurt and I wished I had stayed in bed. In fact, I wished I had stayed in New York. Wisconsin might be a nice place to live, but I wouldn't want to visit there.