MADISON, Wis. -- I had been in Wisconsin several hours and driven more than 100 miles before I saw my first presidential yard sign. It was here, and it was for Howard Dean.
A visitor might not realize that a hotly contested presidential primary will be held today. In Racine, in the southeast corner of Wisconsin, there are plenty of signs for candidates seeking local offices, but none for White House aspirants. Here on the campus of the University of Wisconsin, a longtime hotbed of left-wing causes, there are few indications. You could walk through the sprawling student union oblivious to the rally being held for Dr. Dean in an out-of-the-way auditorium.
But inside, there is the heady atmosphere of a crusade. Warmed up by a dreadlocked reggae band called Natty Nation singing "Rasta Revolution," some 250 people cheer wildly when the candidate appears on stage. Dr. Dean and his followers may expect to lose, but they don't plan to lose quietly.
The atmosphere is a lot different from the mood that hung over a "town meeting" held by Sen. John Edwards earlier in the day in Racine, which suffers the state's highest unemployment rate. The old political trick is to get a smaller venue than you need so the crowd looks big, but the gym at the George Bray Neighborhood Center dwarfs the subdued audience of 150, many of them students from a nearby high school.
A few weeks back, campaigning in Iowa, Mr. Edwards was as sunny and vibrant as a spring day. Largely ignored by his opponents, he used his positive message, fresh face and the surprising endorsement of the state's biggest newspaper to vault into a second-place finish -- behind Sen. John Kerry and ahead of Dr. Dean, the longtime front-runner.
Today, though, it's winter for both Wisconsin and the Edwards candidacy. His stump speech has the same themes as before, but he delivers it with less enthusiasm, rushing through parts as if he's bored with it. Someone who sees himself in a two-man contest would normally train his fire on his main rival, but Mr. Edwards refuses to criticize anyone else. "If you're looking for the Democrat who does the best job of attacking other Democrats, that's not me," he informs his listeners.
A lot of candidates try that approach when they're starting out or running strong, only to abandon it when facing defeat. But after losing badly in two Southern states, Virginia and Tennessee, Mr. Edwards may have concluded that he can't beat Mr. Kerry and can only hope to be his vice presidential nominee. Dr. Dean is not running for vice president.
The former Vermont governor doesn't mind noting his opponents' shortcomings. "We did not come all this way to substitute one Washington insider for another," he declares, and soon he is straining to be heard over repeated ovations.
"When it mattered, I stood up," he thunders. "I stood up against the war when John Kerry and John Edwards voted for it. I stood up against No Child Left Behind when the other Democrats wouldn't. What we need in this country is not a president who's going to do the right thing when the right thing is popular. What I think we need is a president who's going to do the right thing whether it's popular or not."
Mr. Edwards is running a campaign that is now mostly about preserving his options. Dr. Dean has passed from running a campaign to leading a cause. Never mind that based on his record, he's not the most obvious person for the role of liberal firebrand. When he notes that he signed the bill making Vermont the first state to offer civil unions to same-sex couples, despite the opposition of 60 percent of Vermonters, he neglects to mention that the state Supreme Court had forced the legislation.
And never mind that the cause may be lost. Repeated defeats may have made Mr. Edwards cautious. But Dr. Dean is taking the opportunity to throw caution to the wind. He has an inkling that if Democrats were to choose with their hearts instead of their heads, he'd be as popular with the mass of voters as he is with this crowd.
The race isn't over yet: Most convention delegates have yet to be selected. With his ability to inspire a crowd like this one, it's possible to imagine he can reignite his campaign.
After the rally, though, the campus is undisturbed by Dr. Dean's show of passion. Statewide polls suggest that Wisconsin Democrats prefer Mr. Kerry. Dr. Dean has yet to win a primary, anywhere. On my way out of town, I wonder if Dr. Dean has ever heard the old definition of Madison: 78 square miles surrounded by reality.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.