It's shaping up to be an interesting Saturday on the Capitol Square in downtown Madison. For starters, it's the first Saturday of the outdoor Dane County Farmers' Market season, which during any other year would mean enough extra foot traffic between the stands to make navigating through the area a little more difficult than normal.
But of course, no one would make that claim this year, not after two months of thousands-large protests against Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill flooded downtown Madison with demonstrators making their statements, taking advantage of pockets of relatively warm weather in February and March.
The numbers of protesters on both sides of that debate have dwindled in the past few weeks, but thanks to the coming of spring and the announcement of a "Tax Day Tea Party," along with an inevitable counter-protest (which, granted, is actually the original protest) and the environmentally-conscious crowd set to attend the Facebook event page for the tea party rally, a question was posted that was about to be answered many, many times across cyberspace: "Is Sarah Palin really confirmed for this Saturday?" A couple of wall posts up the page, the elated answer: "You Betcha!!!!"
In the blogosphere, reactions were predictably mixed. Some writers, like David Blaska, hinted at their lack of confidence in the anti-Walker protesters to stay calm through when faced with large numbers of their political opponents. "The level of civility from our progressive/liberal adversaries and their nihilistic hangers-on, all of whom are certain to respond, should be very interesting," Blaska wrote Thursday afternoon.
Ann Althouse took a more measured tack. In her typically inscrutable -- yet somehow vaguely implicative -- fashion, the widely-read UW Law School professor linked to a Talking Points Memo confirmation of the appearance, writing, "Sarah Palin will appear at the Madison Tea Party rally this Saturday. Well... that ought to bulk up the crowd... with all sorts of characters!"
Wall posts on the Facebook page entitled "Tea Party Counter Rally - It's our house!" were not nearly so mysteriously bemused. Responses there to the announcement of Palin's appearance ranged from incredulous: "Sarah Palin is coming? Really?" to defiant: "Let's greet Palin Wisconsin-style!" to urgent: "Managers of this page, please message everybody about Palin, it is so important that we get our folks to this event!" to retro-ironic: "Can we get Tina Fey to be at ours?"
One person who might be less than pleased about the new influx of partisan celebrity into the mix (or perhaps thrilled about the resulting increase in numbers) is Larry Johnson, manager of the Dane County Farmers' Market. But Thursday afternoon, Johnson seemed relatively unconcerned by the extra-curricular activity. "It's hard to know how all of this will affect us," he said. "The tea party is scheduled for noon and we open at six, so our loyal customers can certainly come out early if they want."
Johnson added that he didn't know how the crowds would impact sales, but mentioned that the forecast for Saturday - overcast with a chance of showers - might keep some people away from both the rallies and the market.
In terms of numbers of people on the Square, no one is quite sure what to expect. Madison Police spokesman Joel DeSpain declined to make an estimate. "Until it happens, we won't really have any idea [in terms of numbers]. But in typical Madison fashion we'll probably be overwhelmed by the turnout."
For all the new developments, DeSpain and Johnson both stayed relatively upbeat. In fact, the only real problem Johnson saw was more logistical than confrontational: "We're going with our plan as usual," he said. "There will be a little extra trash, but we've already made arrangements for that."
For his part, DeSpain said he was confident that the crowds would remain calm, no matter their size. "We have contingency plans in place to have additional officers. However, as you know, the numbers have been quite large in the past and we haven't had any problems." He concluded, "We've had a few absolutely huge numbers -- including times with the tea party protests -- and everything has stayed peaceful. So I don't expect it will be different this week."