MADISON, Wis. — President Barack Obama tried to turn the conversation to the importance of early and absentee voting before a friendly crowd of 30,000 on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus Thursday, shaking off criticism over his first debate against Republican Mitt Romney.
The crowd waited for hours in periodic rain showers and dropping temperatures to cheer Obama during his 22-minute speech that touched on key campaign themes of funding education, creating jobs and pushing for tax fairness.
Obama urged the student-heavy crowd not to boo Romney but instead to vote.
"Go Badgers!" he said as he took the stage, one of only a few references to being in Wisconsin. He encouraged listeners to take advantage of in-person early voting that starts in Wisconsin on Oct. 22 and runs through Nov. 2. Absentee ballots are also available and must be mailed back before Election Day.
Four years ago, when Obama carried Wisconsin by 14 points, one in five ballots was cast before Election Day.
The visit came the day after Obama's first debate with Romney and the release of a poll showing Obama ahead in Wisconsin by 11 points with five weeks to go.
Staged on the tree-lined Bascom Hill in the middle of campus, the speech marked the second time Obama has come Wisconsin in as many weeks. Thursday's crowd count of 30,000 was provided by UW Police.
UW senior Katie Iliff introduced Obama and urged her fellow students to the find the time between classes and other commitments to vote.
Rally attendee Laurie Benzine, 57, said she intends to vote early in-person so she can focus on doing other work for Obama on Election Day.
"Everybody's got to get put to vote and support him," said Benzine, of Rio, Wis. "He's got a good lead here but look what happened with Gov. Walker. We thought we had it."
Walker won his June recall election by 7 points.
Walker released a statement Thursday blasting Obama's decision to campaign in Madison following his widely panned performance in Wednesday's debate.
"President Obama is on his heels and chose to recover from a bad debate in one of the most liberal places in America," Walker said. "Last night, swing voters in Wisconsin clearly saw that Mitt Romney is the better choice to get America working again."
Romney's campaign has said the organization built to keep Walker in office is being tapped to propel the GOP candidate and encourage early voting. Wisconsin hasn't voted for a Republican for president since 1984, but Romney hopes to break that streak with the help of Janesville-native Paul Ryan on his ticket as vice president.
Ryan planned to host a fundraiser in Milwaukee on Saturday and return the following weekend to raise money for Tommy Thompson in his Senate race against Democrat Tammy Baldwin.
"The thrill is gone in a lot of places, and Madison is a classic example of that," said Rich Beeson, Romney's political director. "They need to go in and prop up the base."
Obama's decision to return to Wisconsin so quickly is an indication of how well Romney and Ryan are doing in Wisconsin, Romney pollster Neil Newhouse said.
"It's the only state where we've actually added to our target list for advertising as a result of what's happening on the ground," Newhouse said. "We're excited about where we stand in Wisconsin. I think our on-the-ground activity reinforces that."
Newhouse and Beeson refused to disclose their internal poll numbers.
Obama supporters at the rally said they weren't worried about what effect the president's debate performance would have on the election.
"I think he took the high road," said Obama supporter Nichols Williams, 32, of Madison. Williams said he was planning to wait until Election Day to cast his ballot, despite the president's pleas to vote early.
In Wisconsin, 71,347 absentee ballots have been requested by election clerks who use the statewide voter database. The ballots are mailed and collected locally, so there is no overall total for how many have been submitted.