WASHINGTON — A "sanity" rally blending laughs and political activism drew thousands to the National Mall on Saturday, with comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert casting themselves as the unlikely maestros of moderation and civility in polarized times.
Organizers insisted the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, just days before the congressional elections Tuesday, wasn't about politics. Still, supporters and left-leaning advocacy groups hoped it would rekindle some of the voter enthusiasm for Democrats seen in 2008, particularly among young adults.
Festive crowds swarmed on to the mall hours in advance, stickers and signs reflecting the call for people to chill out. "Vote sanity," stickers said. Slogans urged "relax."
But also: "Righties, don't stomp on my head," a reference to a Republican rally in Kentucky at which a liberal activist was pulled to the ground and stepped on.
Stewart, host of Comedy Central's "Daily Show," is popular especially with Democrats and independents, a Pew Research Center poll found. Colbert of "The Colbert Report" poses as an ultraconservative, and the stage Saturday was stacked with entertainers associated with Democratic causes or President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign.
Even so, Stewart said the day was about toning down anger and partisan division. "Shouting is annoying, counterproductive and terrible for your throat," he said on his website.
The list of entertainers included musicians Sheryl Crow and The Roots. Actor Sam Waterston and Don Novello, who years ago played Father Guido Sarducci on "Saturday Night Live," were also expected to appear.
The rally generated extensive buzz on the Internet, with more than 226,000 people on a Facebook page created for the event saying they would attend. The liberal Huffington Post was sending a caravan of 10,000 people on 200 buses from New York, while Oprah Winfrey expressed her support by providing travel expenses to a "Daily Show" studio audience of about 200 members so that they could attend.
Comedy Central's park permit puts the crowd estimate at 60,000. There were plans for satellite rallies in cities including Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver and Honolulu.
Stewart and Colbert encouraged attendees to bring signs with slogans such as "Real patriots can handle a difference in opinion," ''It could be worse but let's not make it that way," and "Death to Nobody."
Organizing for America, Obama's political operation based at Democratic National Committee headquarters, was setting up a "Phone Bank for Sanity" after the rally to urge people to vote on Tuesday.
Groups planning to enlist supporters at the event include Naral Pro-Choice America; D.C. Vote, which aims to give D.C. a voting representative in the House; and backers of California's Proposition 19 to legalize marijuana.
"The vitriol and hatred toward our president and Democrats, it has become so extreme that it kind of scares me," said Margaret Espaillat, 49, of Orlando, Fla., who's hoping the rally will improve the political tone and galvanize Democrats. She planned to attend with her three sons who are in college and her husband, an Army colonel.
Saturday's event mirrors the "Restoring Honor" rally held in August by Glenn Beck, the Fox News commentator popular among conservatives and tea party supporters. Beck, too, played down his event as a political rally; Stewart has described his simply as an alternative format for the mock-news humor seen by millions of Comedy Central viewers each night on "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report."
On his radio show this week, conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh mocked the Saturday event. He says it will give the tea party and other conservatives a chance to build voter turnout for Tuesday while Democrats go to Washington to "smoke some doobies" and listen to a "couple of half-baked comedians."
The rally is promoting charitable causes. Stewart is asking attendees to help restore the National Mall, which has a $400 million backlog of deferred maintenance. Colbert is asking people to contribute to Donors Choose, which raises money for school supplies; proceeds from sales of rally merchandise also will go to the Yellow Ribbon Fund to help injured soldiers.