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Obama-Bascom Hill 5

Crowd awaits President Barack Obama's campaign rally at UW-Madison campus on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012.

At 4 a.m. Thursday, six college chums huddled for warmth on a UW-Madison sidewalk just west of Bascom Hill, sharing three Badger blankets and arriving long before anyone else with the hope that later they'd see President Barack Obama close enough that, as Allison Berg of Chicago put it, "we could take a picture without having to zoom in."

Almost half a day later, at 3:40 p.m. Thursday, Obama took the stage not far from where they kept their predawn vigil.

"Hello Madison!" Obama said, starting his 22-minute speech and drawing thunderous applause.

Much had changed since Berg and friends first arrived. Darkness was replaced by a postcard-perfect fall afternoon, with blue sky above and a bright sun that threaded through trees at the lower end of Bascom Hill, bathing Obama and the speakers before him in late-afternoon light.

An estimated 30,000 people packed shoulder to shoulder, filling the hill to capacity and turning in the largest crowd so far this election season.

There were steelworkers for Obama, veterans for Obama, grandmothers for Obama, at least one hunter for Obama and, more than anything, students of all ages for Obama.

Seventh-grader Julio Sanchez of Madison begged and begged his mother, Rosanna Lopez, for the chance to go. Eventually, she relented, agreeing to let him take a half-day off school and endure a long wait in line for a peek at history.

"I've never seen a black president, first of all, and I really want to see a real live president in person so I can get a handshake," Sanchez said, sitting with his mom's navy blue coat draped over his head as rain sprinkled down at noon. It was one of several doses of light rain throughout the morning, which featured gray skies before turning blue and clear early in the afternoon.

The political theater underscored the tightening presidential campaign, which experts say would likely tighten further after Wednesday night's debate, which Obama was widely judged to have lost to his opponent, Republican Mitt Romney.

Throughout his speech, Obama interrupted the crowd when they'd start to boo mentions of Romney.

"Don't boo," he said. "Vote!"

As Sanchez and Lopez waited toward the end of the line, which stretched from Bascom Hill up and down Observatory Drive, campaign volunteer Robert Earle passed by holding a clipboard and voter registration sheets.

"Are you registered to vote?" he said to the crowd. "You're only going to be asked that a couple hundred times today!"

People laughed, knowing that he wasn't exaggerating by much. Hundreds of volunteers canvassed the crowd, clipboards in hand, imploring people to register.

"Better to have too many of us than too few," Earle said.

Toward the front of the line, five UW-Madison friends from three countries — the U.S., Spain and Iran — formed "Obama" with their T-shirts, each wearing a different letter. Down the street, a man hawked cardboard cutouts of Obama's broadly smiling face for $20.

Despite the wait to get in, spirits seemed high and most came prepared. Brent Grimm, a UW-Madison sophomore from Rochester, Minn., rested a book, "Storm of Swords," atop an orange road cone as he read it, prepared for a long wait: the book is 900 pages long.

Not everyone got to see the president. What looked like a few thousand ticket holders were denied entry when officials cut off entry at around 2 p.m., citing capacity. Many went to overflow areas on campus to watch a live online stream of the rally. Others went home.

"I'm disappointed," said Dwayne Bland of Madison, who along with friend Betsy Pelto was turned away. "I wanted to see the president. I don't understand why they have more tickets than they have seats."

Among the throngs were some Romney supporters there for the experience.

"I'm willing to hear what (Obama) has to say." said Republican Ryan Hansen, 19, a UW-Madison student from La Crosse. "He's still our president — for now."

Afterward, Hansen gave a tepid review.

"That was some serious picking on Mitt," he said.

Most there went because they support the president and came out even more enthusiastic.

"It was an awesome experience and something that probably won't happen again while we're at UW," said Berg. She and her fellow campers celebrated being up for 12 hours just before Obama took the stage, reveling in the groggy euphoria and celebrating their close look at history — close enough that they took most of the photos without the zoom.

State Journal reporter Doug Erickson contributed to this report.

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