Remember that brief, shining moment in 2004 after the Wisconsin primary was moved up and we were suddenly relevant to national political campaigns? Howard Dean's campaign had already collapsed, but you could still vote for John Edwards if you wanted to make things interesting, before the Kerry "inevitability" machine took over.
Right before the general election, Bruce Springsteen gave a free concert in downtown Madison to stir up enthusiasm for Kerry. Unfortunately, he brought along Kerry himself, who tried to ignite the crowd with a reference to "Lambert Field." We all know how that turned out.
This year, with the crush of earlier early primaries, Wisconsin has been left behind.
If you want to see the presidential candidates up close, you'll have to drive across the border to Iowa. I don't recommend it. To go to Iowa is to understand what the TV anchors mean when they refer, condescendingly, to the "heartland."
Although I grew up and have lived most of my life in Wisconsin, I didn't grasp how different we are until I told my hosts at an Iowa bed and breakfast that I was from Madison. My husband, it turns out, had unwittingly booked us at a fundamentalist Christian B&B. We spent the breakfast portion of our stay listening to a lecture on the horrors of campus life at the UW-Madison during the 1960s, when our host had the misfortune to go to school here. We ran.
Iowa is too flat, too white, and too full of corn for my taste. I'm sure there are some lovely parts, but these are partially obscured by billboards that say things like, "The Wages of Sin Is Death." I'm always glad to get back to the hillier and politically more heterodox landscape east of the Mississippi River.
Sure, we have conservatives here too. But this is the land of culturally congenial Republicans like Tommy Thompson, Democratic mavericks like Russ Feingold and that rare and fascinating breed, the Feingold/Bush split-ticket voter.
The whole nation would be better off, I believe, if Wisconsin were the lead-off primary state instead of Iowa.
If Wisconsin were setting the tone for national campaigns, there would, for instance, be a much more nuanced debate on stem-cell research. Advocates of policies that favor factory farms and corporate agriculture generally would at least hear from advocates for small farms and opponents of cryptosporidium in the water supply. The campaigns would have to change their talking points to accommodate audiences as diverse as Madison, Appleton and downtown Milwaukee.
And we Wisconsinites might bring a helpful perspective to national politics. Instead of listening to our state legislators parrot lines about God, guns and gays borrowed from the national right-wing playbook, we could help plant some ideas. How about reviving Fightin' Bob La Follette's call for a plebiscite to authorize sending American troops to war, for starters?
We Wisconsinites are at least as good as Iowans at sizing up the political candidates. Take a look at the current big news in Iowa - the rise of Mike Huckabee as a potential challenger to Mitt Romney in the caucuses.
Now Huckabee is a likable guy. He might just be the Republicans' best prospect to win the White House. And who could dislike someone who's lost more than 100 pounds, opposes junk food in the schools, and has said, to the consternation of his party's pro-business wing, that he doesn't see why he should feel good about buying a cheap product at a big-box store that some 9-year-old stayed up all night to make?
But guess who Huckabee picked to lead his campaign here in Wisconsin? Tim Michels - Russ Feingold's very rich and very hapless opponent in his last Senate race. That's really all you need to know about the Huckabee campaign.
On the Democratic side, Obama is pouring on steam in Iowa and catching up to Hillary. But by the third Tuesday in February, when Wisconsin votes, the Democratic race will most likely be over.
Let's just hope we don't have to listen to Celine Dion on State Street introducing Hillary in a Brewers cap.
RUTH CONNIFF IS THE POLITICAL EDITOR OF THE PROGRESSIVE MAGAZINE.