MOUNT VERNON, Iowa (AP) — Retired Iowa lawmaker Ro Foege watched in awe Wednesday as thousands of Barack Obama supporters, college students and voters of all ages waited outside a gymnasium for the president's arrival.
Foege has lived in Mount Vernon for more than three decades, but he said the town of 4,500 outside Cedar Rapids had never seen anything like the scene at a Cornell College gymnasium where the president was to speak. Students camped out overnight and made T-shirts commemorating the visit, the first by a sitting president in the school's 159-year history, a college spokesman said.
Teams of Obama volunteers handed out absentee ballot applications and gave instructions on how to vote early a few blocks away after the event. Foege got up early to put Obama campaign signs along Highway 1, and he marveled at how many downtown businesses — the gift shop, the boutique clothing store — hung giant pictures of the president in their windows.
"I can't remember anything bigger or more important for Mount Vernon," said Foege, a Democrat who retired from the Iowa House in 2008. "There's a lot of excitement and a lot of enthusiasm, and it's not just college students. It's a nice variety of people coming to our little town."
The scene on the tree-lined Cornell College campus made for a day residents are unlikely to forget anytime soon. Obama's campaign was hoping that his visit would energize college students, win over undecided voters and help him build the margin of victory over Mitt Romney that he needs in the eastern part of Iowa to win the battleground state's six electoral votes.
But for many of those in the crowd, it was just plain fun. Three weeks before a presidential election, their town was in the spotlight like never before.
"Holy smokes," said college theatre professor Janeve West, 35, as she looked at the line for Obama that stretched several city blocks. She had a ticket for the event but was debating whether it would be worth the wait. She has already voted for Obama.
"It's absolutely astounding that a sitting president would be here," she said.
Cornell College student Catalina Salas proudly showed off the t-shirts she and her friends made that read, "Party like a Barack star." Their group had arrived at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, fearful that space would run out in the gym quickly. (They were right: 2,000 people were allowed in the gym and 800 were in an overflow room).
Freshman Erin Newman, 18, said her friends bundled up and passed the night by having a series of "strange conversations." By Wednesday morning, she'd been awake for more than 24 hours. She said her plan was simple.
"I'm going to see Obama, cast my vote and then take a nap," she said. "We wanted to make sure we got in to see Obama. He's the president of the United States, and I think he's going to do great things for this country."
Obama was trying to win over voters such as Nick Barnes, 18, a freshman who said he was undecided and had not been paying attention to the campaign. Barnes had waited since midnight to see Obama because he doubted he'd ever have a similar chance to see the president.
"I'm looking to see what he has to say," Barnes said.
Republicans made sure they got in on the action, too. A group of Romney supporters — including a woman dressed in a pink bunny suit called the "deficit bunny" — held signs near Memorial Park a few blocks away that criticized the president's handling of the deficit, gas prices and the economy. They stood next to a giant tractor propped up on a semi-trailer bed that was painted red and blue and emblazoned with Romney-Ryan campaign slogans such as, "America's comeback team."
Dick Steines of Bellevue said his boss, the owner of a company that rebuilds and sells construction and mining equipment, had employees paint the tractor last week to show support for small businesses. A plow mounted on the tractor read, "Romney-Ryan 2012," adding: "In honor of small business owners and their employees that did built it!"
Mount Vernon marked the first stop on the "Romney-Ryan dozer tour," in which the tractor will appear at events around the country for the Romney campaign before the election, he said.
Pumping his fist, Steines said, "This is the push to the end, and Romney's going to take it!"