Wisconsin voters are just warming up.
Updated: April 1, 2012 - 7:05 AM
MILWAUKEE - Wisconsin voters are just warming up.
The national political spotlight promises to be hotter than normal this year, considering the series of contests in the state that serve as tests on issues confronting the country as a whole. And that's after Tuesday's Republican presidential primary, which effectively could end the race for the nomination.
Energized Republicans sense opportunities they haven't seen in a generation to complete a turnaround.
"You have an incredibly engaged and active electorate right now in Wisconsin," said Mark Graul, a Republican strategist in the state. "That will certainly hold through to November."
They see the chance to turn back a national effort to recall Gov. Scott Walker in a June election stemming from the first-term Republican's aggressive effort to strip public employee unions of power, and to pick a strong U.S. Senate nominee in August whose victory in November would give Wisconsin two GOP seats for the first time since 1957.
Ultimately, they see this sequence of votes, starting this coming week, as test runs they hope will build toward a Republican carrying Wisconsin in the general election, which hasn't happened since 1984.
"We've never been so optimistic. We have a chance like I've never seen in this state," John Kleczka, a 68-year-old Republican from Brookfield who attended a rally for GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney on Milwaukee's south side Friday.
Walker's recall dominates, despite Romney's chance of putting away conservative rival Rick Santorum on Tuesday.
The recall is the culmination of a fight over the cost of public worker benefits amid austere budget times. Wisconsin's traditionally strong labor movement has attracted national help to fight Walker, elected in 2010 on a promise to get tough with public employee unions.
Other states such as Indiana have pushed to curb public-sector union benefits. But Walker's move, which led to huge demonstrations and national attention in Madison last year, has made Wisconsin the national test case.
It's also seen as an emotional turning point for both sides in a dispute that has raged since Walker jumped into the race three years ago.
The intensity of the battle is clear while cruising around the state of 5.7 million people. Lawn signs with competing "I Stand With Governor Walker" and "Recall Walker" messages offer indications of the deeper philosophical rift.
To initiate the recall, Walker's foes accumulated more than 900,000 valid signatures, almost twice the number they needed.
On a labor row on the edge of Milwaukee, where several unions have their state headquarters, recall and solidarity signs are plastered over windows.
But Wisconsin has weathered the recession better than its Rust Belt neighbors. Personal income has risen $2,000 since 2008, faster than the national average.
Unemployment was 6.9 percent in February, well below the 8.3 percent national average and better than Illinois' 9.1 percent, Michigan's 8.8 percent and Ohio's 7.6 percent.
Wisconsin's agricultural output remains robust while the state's manufacturing sector has also been stable, marked by success stories such as the revival of Harley-Davidson motorcycles in Milwaukee.
Since Democrat Barack Obama carried the state by 14 percentage points in the 2008 presidential race, Wisconsin's conservatives have awoken, uniting around fiscal issues.
Republicans dominate in the three counties surrounding heavily Democratic Milwaukee in the southeast. Democrats prevail in the college and state-worker heavy capital, Madison, about 80 miles west of Milwaukee.
The rest of the state is a blend of blue collar strength in the mill and plant towns in the north, and deep pockets of social conservatives in rural areas, small towns and suburbs.
Republicans recaptured both houses of the Legislature in 2010 and now have the edge in Wisconsin's congressional delegation.
"We have been building momentum a long time," said Mary Buestrin, a Republican National Committeewoman from GOP-heavy Mequon, an upper-middle class Milwaukee suburb.
In the past three years, Wisconsin has begun bending away from more than a decade of Democratic-leaning statewide votes. Tea party favorite Ron Johnson turned back three-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold in 2010.
U.S. Rep. David Obey, a longtime leader on the House Appropriations Committee, saw his seat in jeopardy in 2010, and retired after 40 years representing northern Wisconsin.
Big-name Republicans, including longtime former Gov. Tommy Thompson and former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann, are seeking the Senate nomination. Four-term Democrat Herb Kohl is retiring.
Adding to the attention, Wisconsin also boasts two prominent Obama antagonists: U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, and Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus
Ryan received an ovation louder than Romney's when introducing the candidate Friday.
"We have a team of stars in Wisconsin the rest of the country is just learning about," said New Berlin Republican activist Pat Reinke, who attended the Romney rally. "Paul Ryan, Scott Walker, Ron Johnson, they are all gems."
Obama aims to make his race about the financial security of the middle class by painting his GOP rivals as beholden to interests of the wealthiest and of corporations. The Republicans say their goals of reining in government costs and regulations are about making sure companies can retain and expand payrolls in uncertain times.
Although George W. Bush lost Wisconsin in 2000 and 2004 by slim margins, the last Republican presidential candidate to carry the state was Ronald Reagan in his 1984 landslide re-election.
Even Democratic-leaning forces see a silver lining to the surge in confidence from the other side. The steady pace means voters will be deeply immersed in the issues, party lists of likely voters will be fresh and there will be lots of voter data to mine.
"They're getting engaged and it just carries over and builds," state AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt said. "We're building a movement here."
In the waning days of the late-starting Wisconsin primary campaign, Romney and Santorum have gotten into the act.
Santorum has praised Walker effusively for standing up to unions.
Besides winning Ryan's endorsement, Romney has attacked votes by Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, opposing legislation to block all states from requiring union membership as a condition of employment. Romney's campaign sponsored an automated telephone call praising Walker and condemning Santorum. The issue resonates with Wisconsin's especially anti-labor Republican electorate.
Romney's move could be a decisive one in Wisconsin, where he leads Santorum in polls. Santorum has lost Michigan, Ohio and Illinois to Romney, making Wisconsin the final chance for Santorum to make good on his argument his background from swing-state Pennsylvania makes him a good match for Obama.
But Wisconsin's unions remain strong and have the financial backing of their national affiliates, making Romney's attack on Santorum's support for private sector unions a potentially dangerous move for the general election.
"I think private sector union stuff is a good thing for Romney not to touch here," said GOP strategist Graul, a veteran of statewide and presidential campaigns in Wisconsin. "Even Gov. Walker hasn't said he's trying to push right-to-work."
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