Republicans tried to cast President Barack Obama's campaign rally on the University of Wisconsin campus Tuesday as a sign that Democrats are desperate to avoid widespread defeats heading into the midterm election.
Obama's rally, complete with rock bands, was the first of four heading into the election in which he hopes to recapture some of the excitement from two years ago. Polls nationwide show an "enthusiasm gap" that is putting Republicans ahead of Democrats in key races, including the Wisconsin governor's race and U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold's re-election bid.
"He's got a depressed base and an enthusiastic group of Republicans and conservatives ready to make a change," Priebus said.
Obama attracted more than 17,000 during a campaign stop at the university's basketball arena in 2008, but Tuesday's event was being staged in a much smaller outdoor space in the heart of campus. The Democratic National Committee was not releasing an estimate of how many people were expected or could fit into the area.
Obama's rally was geared toward young voters who were vital to his 14-point win in Wisconsin two years ago. Obama, in a conference call with college journalists on Monday, said the purpose of his Madison visit was to re-engage those students and convince them that they should care about the election.
"Even though this may not be as exciting as a presidential election, it's going to make a huge difference in terms of whether we're going to be able to move our agenda forward over the next couple of years," Obama said.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett planned to appear at the late afternoon event with Obama but Feingold was not attending.
Feingold, who polls show is trailing Republican challenger and political newcomer Ron Johnson, opted to stay in Washington, D.C., where the Senate was in session. Feingold also didn't appear with the president at a Labor Day rally in Milwaukee, deciding instead to keep his commitment to attend his hometown parade.
Johnson's campaign spokeswoman Sara Sendek accused Feingold of dodging Obama for a second time in an attempt to distance himself from the Democratic agenda.
But DNC Chairman Tim Kaine said on CBS's "The Early Show" that he sees no slight in Feingold's decision to stay away. Kaine said candidates "make their own decisions about these things" and that Feingold understands Obama can energize the party's base.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker said the fact that Obama feels the need to return to Wisconsin for his fourth visit since late June shows that Democrats, and specifically the Barrett campaign, are in trouble. Obama hosted a fundraiser for Barrett last month in Milwaukee.
Walker used the Madison rally to again link Barrett with Obama and Democratic incumbent Gov. Jim Doyle. Both Obama and Doyle are suffering under their lowest approval ratings ever in Wisconsin.
Walker slammed Barrett and Obama on a high-speed train line to be built between Madison and Milwaukee using $810 million in federal stimulus money. Walker, who has vowed to stop the project if elected, said it's an example of runaway government spending. Barrett supports the project, which is projected to create 5,500 construction jobs between now and 2013.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in two separate visits to Wisconsin this summer, said the train line will be built no matter what Republican critics like Walker say.