Sarah Palin was the top draw for at least one supporter who came to the tea party rally Saturday at the state Capitol. And he likes the former governor of Alaska as a 2012 presidential pick.
"I want her as president," said John, a software engineer from Des Plaines, Ill., who declined to give his name because he feared his tea party affiliation might bring him retaliation at work. "She stands for everything I stand for."
Those values, John said, are a strong defense, conservative ideals and limited government.
Palin, who took the stage at the tea party's annual tax day rally amidst falling snow and a counter-protest of union supporters, did not disappoint, calling for a downsized government. In 2010, Palin said, "Tea party Americans won an elective victory of historic proportions. We rejected leftist big government. We don't want it and are unwilling to pay for it."
Americans for Prosperity organized the rally and brought busloads of supporters from around the state. Tea party supporters, who gathered at the King Street entrance of the state Capitol, were surrounded on three sides by counter-protesters, who rang cowbells and shouted "Shame! Shame! Shame!" through megaphones. The counter-protesters were so loud at times that they easily drowned out the speakers, including Palin.
The two groups threw verbal barbs at each other and tea party supporters wondered aloud why police weren't doing more to control the counter-protesters.
"All we ask for is for our side to be heard," said one. "We won. Why don't they understand? If they had a rally, we'd never do what they're doing."
Despite some tense exchanges, though, Capitol Police reported just one arrest for disorderly conduct. Police estimated the crowd at 6,500, adding that the lines between the tea party rally and the counter-protest were so unclear that there "was no way to accurately determine how many people were attending any specific event."
Palin's visit to Madison comes at a time when some say her star is falling. Plucked from near political obscurity when U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona tapped her in 2008 as his GOP vice presidential running mate, she is often mentioned as a presidential candidate for 2012, though she has not yet declared her candidacy. Meanwhile, other potential contenders, including real estate mogul Donald Trump and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, are increasingly grabbing the limelight.
But 2012 was clearly on Palin's mind.
"What you have accomplished here in Wisconsin will not be forgotten," she said. "The 2012 election starts here."
"These are the frontlines of the battle for the future of our country," she added. "This is where the battle lines have been drawn in the sand."
Palin and other speakers applauded Gov. Scott Walker for his amended budget repair bill, which guts collective bargaining rights for most public workers. "Your governor did the right thing and he won," Palin said to loud cheers. "People still have their jobs because of it."
Palin also took on what she called the "GOP establishment." "We need for you to stand up to the GOP and fight," Palin said, adding that party leaders could learn something from the University of Wisconsin championship women's hockey team. "They need to learn how to fight like a girl."
Waukesha County resident Jim Studnicka said he voted for the McCain-Palin ticket in part because Palin was on it. But her odds this time aren't good, he said, because the media have relentlessly and unfairly attacked her despite the fact that she proved a competent politician while she was the governor of Alaska.
"I'd vote for her again in a heartbeat, but I don't think she could win," Studnicka said.
Debra Tanner of Milwaukee is also a Palin fan, but worries that she doesn't have what it takes to win the White House.
"I think she's a smart woman who knows what she's doing," Tanner said. "But I don't think she's ready."
Tanner said the attacks on Palin and her family also would prove to be too much of a distraction.
Vietnam veteran Andy Loduha made the trip to Madison from his home in Rhinelander to support the tea party message. He said politics in Wisconsin and across the country have become too divisive. But he doesn't see Palin as a politician who could bring the country back together.
Before finishing his thought, Loduha was approached by a fellow Vietnam veteran who tried to engage him in a shouting match over his support for "the wrong side." More pro-union supporters soon surrounded the two, with one woman telling Loduha he was stupid for supporting Gov. Scott Walker and the tea party movement.
"We are all Americans," Loduha said. "We have to remember that is the common thread that runs through all of us. What's happening now ... this class warfare ... is dividing us."
But not all tea party speakers were spreading a message of peace either. Conservative talk show radio host Vicki McKenna told union supporters in the crowd to "shut up," and controversial conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart told them to "go to hell."
"We are witnessing the end of community organizing," Breitbart taunted the crowd. "The silent majority won."