The last time I crossed paths with Sarah Palin was in a bar in Anchorage.
I was working in 2006 for that city's alternative weekly, the Anchorage Press. Palin was in the bar to raise money for her campaign for Alaska governor, running as a whistleblower. People there admired her for challenging the old boys' Republican establishment in Alaska, but many others didn't know what to make of her, what she stood for. I snapped some pictures of her chatting with U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, now a Palin foe.
I pushed my way through the bar crowd that day and asked her a few banal questions about the governor's campaign -- I don't remember what or how she answered -- and left.
Times sure have changed for Palin, though, many people still don't know what to make of her. Say this for her: her power to draw a crowd has grown exponentially. But this time in Madison, on a blustery snowy spring Saturday, the people mostly came out to shout her down, not give her money.
Tea party protest supporters and opponents alike were curious about the Alaskan, who spoke at the King Street corner of the Capitol. One counter-protester, Leslie Taylor of Madison admitted, "I'm dying of curiosity to see what kind of people support Sarah Palin. Although, I'm seeing more protesters than supporters."
Taylor was carrying a sign, which she says she took from a bumper sticker, "Palin 2012: the Mayans warned us," referring to an interpretation of Mayan prophecy that has the apocalypse coming next year.
Capitol Police estimated the crowd at 12:30 p.m. to be around 6,500 people, but added, "There is no way to accurately determine how many people were attending any specific event."
The tea party supporters were lined along the sidewalk in front of the podium, surrounded by small barriers, perhaps to keep the sounds of counter protesters out. Several thousand counter-protesters surrounded them, chanting "Recall Walker," blowing whistles and horns, beating drums and sometimes booing the speakers.
Even though they used a sound system, it was hard to hear everything the speakers were saying over the counter-chants. The acoustics were such that you could hear the speakers better from afar than you could up close.
Only the shrill Vicki Mckenna, talk show host WIBA, seemed to be able to cut through the chanting, when she told them: "Shut up." The crowd didn't listen. Andrew Breitbart was similarly annoyed and told the crowd, "you've been so rude, go to hell... You're trying to divide America."
Gabe Conroe, a 2001 UW-Madison graduate, made the trip all the way from his home in Chicago to protest Palin. "We wanted to show support for workers." He said the Tea Party "doesn't care about the poor or workers."
Jeff Kerwin of Madison, a union worker, says he was dumbfounded by why the tea party crowd was supporting "the corruption that's gone down in Waukesha County" over the election for state Supreme Court.
Aside from her curiosity about Palin, Taylor said she came out to show "Wisconsin is not a tea party state" and "we'll fight back."
As for what she makes of the tea party crowd, Taylor said, "It's important for citizens to be involved. I've always admired how peaceful we remain here despite the strong feelings on both sides."
When Palin finally took the stage, around 1:30 p.m., the crowd erupted in a cacophony of cheers, boos, applause and angry chants.
I could hardly hear a word she said and probably wouldn't remember any of them anyways. But I'm sure I'll always remember the reception Madison gave her.