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Recall Battle in Wisconsin May Snarl Obama Camp

DE PERE, Wis. — President Obama holds multiple paths to re-election, with a handful of battleground states being able to slip away without leading to his defeat. But each possible outcome on his campaign map has always shared a common trait: winning Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker
Getty Images
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker

A Republican resurgence here, which has burst into full view as the party determinedly defends its sitting governor in a rare recall election, is spilling into the presidential race. The result is poised to shape the general election fight between Mr. Obama and Mitt Romney, who intends to add Wisconsin to his list of targeted states.

The president is bracing for a difficult set of challenges, which began last week when an uptick in the unemployment rate provided a fresh reminder of the beleaguered domestic economy and the deepening financial uncertainties abroad. A Republican victory here could set off a wave of adjustments in the lineup of swing states. Even before the outcome of Tuesday’s vote is known, Democrats are warning that Wisconsin is far from a surefire win in November.

“We are tremendously polarized,” Mike Tate, the Wisconsin Democratic chairman, said in an interview on Sunday. “We’re going to remain a very competitive state heading into the fall.”

While the presidential campaign is well under way across the country, the contest has been overshadowed here by the effort to recall Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican. The election, a culmination of more than a year of bitter unrest, has created a combustible political climate that defies easy characterization in the five months leading up to the general election.

But Mr. Romney is within striking distance of Mr. Obama in Wisconsin, according to several public and private polls and interviews with strategists in both parties, and he intends to start building a campaign operation off the robust get-out-the-vote machinery assembled for Mr. Walker. The decision by the Romney campaign to try to contest Wisconsin is the first sign that Republicans are eager to expand their targets of opportunity and compete on terrain that not long ago seemed squarely on Mr. Obama’s side.

“If we win on Tuesday, this is going to be a shot in the arm and adrenaline that we didn’t expect to have,” said former Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, a Republican who is seeking the party’s nomination to run for Senate. “It is going to spark fervor in the presidential race.”

Mr. Obama has purposefully tried to keep his distance from the recall fight, which has unfolded with all the intensity and acrimony of a presidential campaign within the borders of Wisconsin. The mayor of Milwaukee, Tom Barrett, is the Democratic candidate trying to replace Mr. Walker, who ignited a furor by cutting collective bargaining rights for most of the state’s public workers. It is a rematch of the 2010 governor’s race, which Mr. Barrett lost to Mr. Walker.

The White House has showed tepid support for the recall. Democratic advisers thought the effort would take time and money away from the presidential campaign and poison the pool of independent voters who were a key part of Mr. Obama’s success here four years ago, when he carried the state by 14 points and swept 59 of 72 counties.

The president, who campaigned for Mr. Barrett two years ago, has been conspicuously absent this time. His aides argued that he had a full plate and did not have time to come. But Republicans were quick to point out that Mr. Obama was only a helicopter ride on Marine One away from the state on Friday when he visited Minneapolis, and again on Saturday after spending the morning in his old neighborhood in Chicago.

“He couldn’t drive 15 miles and show his face here?” said Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, who spent the weekend in his native Wisconsin to stir the pot and campaign for Mr. Walker. “There are going to be a lot of Democrats in Wisconsin who are going to be pretty disappointed with their president who did not come in and help out.”

While there was more talk of Mr. Obama’s absence among Republicans than Democrats here, several Democratic officials said the president was wise to stay away.

“He’s got a very big job as president,” said former Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat and one of Mr. Obama’s earliest supporters four years ago. “As important as the recall is, in the big picture, it’s much more important to get Barack Obama re-elected.”

The recall election has created bruised feelings and deepened the partisan divide in the state, which was on full display Sunday at the Zirbel Dairy Farms near De Pere, in northeast Wisconsin, where both candidates in the recall race crossed paths as they courted voters.

At the Brown County Dairy Breakfast, a celebration that drew hundreds of people here on a sun-splashed morning, Laurie Gilson groaned aloud from her spot in line when she looked up and saw that Mr. Walker was dishing out scrambled eggs and conversation. She snapped to her sister: “I just can’t look at him. He’d better not say hi to me.”

To avert a confrontation, Ms. Gilson, 52, moved to another line. She said she was furious over the governor’s attempts to “destroy the teachers union.” She also said that the controversy had shaken the political system and that she feared the president, whom she supported in 2008, would face an uphill battle.

“I think it will be hard for Obama to get re-elected,” said Ms. Gilson, who works at Shopko, a discount store. “I hope he gets back in, but the economy is in the toilet and too many people don’t want him around anymore.”

An hour later, when it was Mr. Barrett’s turn to stand in the breakfast line, he encountered several people who recoiled. One man said he was a Walker supporter and turned away, prompting Mr. Barrett to extend his hand anyway and declare, “In America we can still shake hands, can’t we?”

When the recall election is over, the political conversation here will quickly turn to the race for the White House. Ronald Reagan was the last Republican to carry Wisconsin in a presidential race, in 1984, but George W. Bush came within a hairsbreadth in 2000 and 2004.

While Mr. Romney won the Republican primary in Wisconsin, he has largely focused his efforts elsewhere. Party officials here say they expect him to make a visit soon. But whether or not he is successful on Tuesday, Mr. Walker said, the enthusiasm from his race will not automatically transfer to Mr. Romney.

“For them to make inroads in this state,” Mr. Walker said, “they have to talk about what they’re going to do to take on the powerful special interests to ultimately make the tough decisions that are more about the next generation than just the next election.”

Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin said Republicans were no longer in a “defensive crouch” after losing the state so soundly in the last presidential race. But the state is known for its share of ticket-splitters, he said, and he has bumped into some people supporting Mr. Walker who may still back Mr. Obama.

“There’s a slice of those Obama-Walker voters who think the recall is wrong, improper, a waste of money and an overreaction,” Mr. Ryan said. “But I see an awakening of citizens participating. It will show that our state is really in play in November.”

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