The critic was railing against the president, calling him a coward, despite the fact that Barack Obama's tour bus had just pulled into nearby Cannon Falls, Minn.

"Why not go to Wisconsin? What is he afraid of?" he said, leaning forward over his microphone, voice rising a notch, face turning slightly red, arms flailing in the air. "It looks like the president doesn't want to fight!"

Another Rush Limbaugh rant?

Nope. It's part-time Minnesotan, former Moorhead All-American Ed Schultz -- arguably the country's most popular liberal commentator. He was kicking off the top of his daily radio show from a cramped booth in the basement studio of Eden Prairie's AM 950 with yet another plea to resist Wisconsin's new anti-union laws.

"Our audience doesn't like Obama-bashing, but they accept fair critique," Schultz, 57, said later in the day. A few hours later, he'd be heading into WCCO studios to tape his prime-time MSNBC show, one that draws higher ratings than those of his high-profile predecessor, Keith Olbermann.

"I've sung the president's praises quite a bit, but I've also been critical of his strategic moves."

Getting Schultz to talk about anything other than politics is a herculean challenge.

Suggest getting a bite to eat, and he'll segue into how Congress is keeping food off the working family's table. Mention the weather, and he'll insist that Mitt Romney's presidential chances are blowing in the wind.

"The first time I met him, we were supposed to meet for 30 minutes. It lasted two hours," said MSNBC President Phil Griffin. "I think I got about five words in."

Mayday, mayday

On this August morning, though, you could forgive Schultz if he didn't want to talk about what's wrong with Washington. Less than 24 hours before, he had to make the most important radio broadcast of his life.

He was piloting his single-engine Cessna 206 back to Minneapolis from his Canadian fishing lodge when the plane's motor lost a cylinder. Smoke filled the cockpit. Oil covered the windshield. The threat of losing an engine became very real.

For the first time in his flying career, Schultz put out a mayday call.

"It was pretty hairy," said the plane's only other passenger, Wendy Schultz, his wife of 13 years and an assistant producer on his radio show.

With the help of a pilot friend, Schultz managed to find an abandoned dirt strip in the Canadian bush and land the plane.

It wasn't the first close call Schultz has had this year.

During a radio broadcast in May, Schultz described conservative talker Laura Ingraham as a "right-wing slut." He says he immediately knew he had made a mistake. According to Griffin, Schultz insisted on being taken off the air for a week.

"Radio is about emotion. That was a moment when I got carried away with mine," Schultz said. "I think it made me a better broadcaster. You can do TV and radio without the personal insults. I went on TV, apologized and I meant it."

But Schultz would be back in hot water that very evening. On his MSNBC show, broadcast from downtown Minneapolis, he ran a clip of Texas Gov. Rick Perry suggesting that the Republican presidential hopeful had compared Obama to a "big black cloud." He didn't. Schultz apologized the following night, but that didn't stop "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" from giving him a scolding.

Griffin said he believes the mea culpas are sincere.

"An audience can smell a phony, and there's nothing phony about Ed," Griffin said. "He's got brains, but more important, he's got heart."

'I wasn't good enough'

Schultz's first passion wasn't broadcasting; it was football.

He grew up in Virginia, but moved to the Midwest after earning a scholarship from Minnesota State University, Moorhead, where he ended up leading the nation in passing.

Schultz was preparing for an NFL career that he hoped would lead to a coaching job. It didn't happen.

"I wasn't good enough," he said. "It was the biggest disappointment I had ever had to deal with. There was a lot of internal anger and I had a hard time being happy. It took a few years before I realized there was life after football."

He kept his ties to athletics by becoming a popular sportscaster in Fargo and doing play-by-play for North Dakota State football and basketball games for 17 years. In 2001, he was reportedly a finalist to be the Vikings' play-by-play radio announcer.

Instead, he ended up doing a politically oriented morning show on KFGO in Fargo and in 2004 entered the syndication market with "The Ed Schultz Show." At first, it was picked up by only two stations. Within a year it was carried by 95, including AM 950.

Schultz now draws about 2.75 million radio listeners a week. That may seem paltry compared with Limbaugh's 15 million, but industry expert Michael Harrison said it's impressive considering that liberals have a tougher time attracting advertisers' most coveted audience: politically active, affluent, intelligent working people.

"Conservative hosts are preaching to the choir, and liberals are preaching against the choir," said Harrison, editor and publisher of Talkers, the Massachusetts-based publication that covers talk radio and has named Schultz one of radio's 10 best hosts for the past two years.

Harrison believes Schultz is bucking the trend because of his skills behind the mike. "I come from the perspective that broadcasting is about broadcasting," Harrison said. "It doesn't matter whether you're a conservative or a liberal. I just think Schultz is a charismatic, big personality."

That enthusiasm impressed MSNBC, which launched "The Ed Show" at 5 p.m. weekdays in 2009. After Keith Olbermann left the network early this year, Schultz took over the 9 p.m. time slot. Since launching, the program is up 29 percent in total viewers and 50 percent higher than Olbermann's numbers a year ago. For the first half of 2011, he averaged 879,000 viewers, enough to keep him ahead of CNN's Anderson Cooper on nights when there wasn't breaking news -- but less than half the audience that tunes in for Fox News' Greta Van Susteren.

Schultz normally does the TV show from New York City, but occasionally broadcasts from the Twin Cities and spends most weekends at his house in Detroit Lakes, Minn.

Despite his local ties, he was not instantly recognized by most downtown Minneapolis pedestrians on an August afternoon as he tried to conduct man-on-the-street interviews for that evening's program. One by one, passersby turned down requests to chat about Obama's job performance.

"Gee," he said as the sixth person declined his invitation. "People think this is easy."

Part of Schultz's problem is that, outside the world of political junkies, he is not a familiar face. He's too bulky, too loud and too focused on minutiae to make it big in the mainstream -- unless he keeps getting himself into trouble. Ingraham summed it up best when she learned he had been suspended by MSNBC.

"Oh, great," she tweeted. "Now his ratings will go up."