In the wake of promising poll numbers but a bruising first debate with Mitt Romney, a fiery President Barack Obama kicked off the final month of the campaign Thursday in Madison, where he faced a sea of supporters in this famously liberal city.
UW-Madison police estimated the crowd inside the barriers at Bascom Hill at 30,000, the largest of the 2012 presidential campaign.
During a 22-minute speech, Obama poked fun at his opponent — and partially explained his lackluster debate performance Wednesday — by saying the "spirited fellow" on the stage with him in Denver on Wednesday was not Republican challenger Mitt Romney but "the man playing Mitt Romney."
The president ticked off a series of issues on which he said Romney had switched positions. At the debate, Romney said he would not cut taxes if it would make the deficit worse — which Obama charged Thursday was a new position for his GOP challenger.
"I know it couldn't have been Mitt Romney — because the real Mitt Romney has been running around the country for the last year promising $5 trillion in tax cuts that favor the wealthy," the president said. "And yet, the fellow on the stage last night — who looked like Mitt Romney — said he did not know anything about that. It was all news to him."
He said Romney's tax plan can't be paid for without "blowing up the deficit or sticking it to the middle class."
Romney's Wisconsin spokesman, Ben Sparks, retorted that Romney's tax plan would not increase the nation's indebtedness and is "revenue neutral." He accused the president of twisting Romney's proposal.
"His speech today," Sparks said Thursday, "was nothing but campaign rhetoric and false attacks."
Despite that characterization, some supporters watching Obama's passionate speech Thursday wondered where that Obama had been Wednesday night.
Among those leaving Bascom Hill, Terry Williamson, 49, of Milton, gave a common critique: "He should have done last night what he did today. He came out like his old self today."
"He was much more forceful today," said Marc Conrad, 29, of Madison. "He seemed kind of lifeless (Wednesday) night."
"This was definitely the Obama we expect," said Bonnie Cubalchini, 63, of Madison.
"I wish he would have called out Romney last night like he did today," said Andrea Vogel, 46, of Verona.
There were many nods to UW-Madison and the thousands of students blanketing Bascom Hill — some of whom had waited nearly 12 hours for the president's speech. Among Obama's first words, after meeting with the UW-Madison men's basketball team, were "Go Badgers!"
The president was introduced by UW-Madison political science major Katie Iliff of Middleton, who like Obama and other speakers urged the crowd to vote early, beginning Oct. 22.
Other Democrats addressed the crowd: U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, state Rep. Mark Pocan and Madison Mayor Paul Soglin.
New polling released Wednesday showed Obama ahead of Romney by 11 points in Wisconsin, but that gap had narrowed slightly in the past few weeks.
"I believe in you," the president said to raucous applause and cheers. "I'm asking you to believe in me."
Post-debate boost needed
Madison appeared to give Obama a needed infusion of energy after his flat debate performance. The city is the bluest dot in a deeply purple, key battleground state, and over the last six presidential elections voters in Dane County have favored Democrats by 20 or more points.
"President Obama is on his heels and chose to recover from a bad debate in one of the most liberal places in America," Gov. Scott Walker said after the speech. "Last night, swing voters in Wisconsin clearly saw that Mitt Romney is the better choice to get America working again."
But Obama aides accused Romney of not rooting his debate in fact.
Top Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod told reporters Thursday morning that Obama "made a choice not to get into serial fact-checking with Romney" on Wednesday night. But he said the campaign may make adjustments moving forward about highlighting answers believed to be dishonest.
"It was a very vigorous performance, but one that was devoid of honesty," Axelrod said of the challenger. "He (Romney) may win an Oscar for his performance last night, but he's not going to win the presidency."
Sparks responded that the president's flat performance was his own fault and stemmed from a lack of ideas about how to help the struggling middle class.
"The president was unable and unwilling to defend his own record," the Romney spokesman said.
Thursday's visit was Obama's second stop in Wisconsin in less than two weeks, and at least his 25th stop in the state as a presidential candidate or president. Obama's last visit to Madison, in September 2010, drew about 26,500 people who packed the UW-Madison campus. His first visit to the city as president, in November 2009, was the first to Madison by a sitting president in 59 years.
Thousands line streets
Several senior White House officials were on hand to watch the speech and revel in the turnout. Valerie Jarrett and David Plouffe both went up in a hydraulic lift to look over the crowd. Chief of Staff Jack Lew watched from the sidelines, beaming.
At one point, Kohl, Wisconsin's soft-spoken retiring senator, approached Lew and offered him some free advice — on debate preparation.
After the speech, thousands lined the streets cheering and waving as the president's motorcade sped through campus on the way back to Dane County Regional Airport.
Contact Mary Spicuzza at email@example.com or 608-252-6122. Contact Dee J. Hall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 608-252-6132. Reporter Doug Erickson and a media pool reporter contributed to this report.