Obama, Romney Wade Into Wis. Recall Fervor

Wisconsin's Republican governor, Scott Walker, will face Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett next month in a recall election. President Obama has expressed support for Barrett, just as his Republican rival Mitt Romney is supporting Walker, who is a hero to many conservatives. But both President Obama and Romney face a choice over how deeply involved they should be in the recall election. Neither man wants the contest to become a referendum on their candidacies.

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One of the year's fiercest political contests is taking place in Wisconsin. There, first-term Republican Governor Scott Walker faces a recall election in less than three weeks. Voters will choose between keeping Walker or replacing him with the Democrat on the ballot, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. The contest is expected to be close, and it has attracted lots of attention, volunteers and money from across the country. As NPR's Don Gonyea reports, many see the effort to recall Walker as a warm-up for the fall's national elections.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: The effort to recall Walker has been driven by Wisconsin labor unions, angry over the law the governor signed last year curtailing collective bargaining rights for state employee unions. Presidential candidates have weighed in directly and indirectly. President Obama was talking about Mitt Romney here but was also alluding to Wisconsin when he held his first official campaign rally in Ohio this month.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Maximizing profits by whatever means necessary, whether through layoffs or outsourcing or tax avoidance or union busting, might not always be good for the average American or for the American economy.

GONYEA: Meanwhile, Romney, campaigning in last month's Wisconsin primary, made it clear that he stands with Governor Walker. This is from a local radio interview.

MITT ROMNEY: I can only tell you that I think his effort to try and rein in the excesses and to try and give the state a more solid financial footing makes a great deal of sense, and I support him.

GONYEA: But with the recall just 20 days away, for now, there are no plans for either Romney or President Obama to head to Wisconsin to campaign with Republican Governor Walker or Democratic challenger Barrett. Lawrence Jacobs is a professor at the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota.

LAWRENCE JACOBS: I think both Romney and President Obama are going to have to be careful not to make the Wisconsin race a referendum on them in case they lose but also it could be seen as kind of outsiderism.

GONYEA: But plenty of outside groups are involved in a big way. Walker has raised $25 million, including contributions from the Koch brothers, the billionaire industrialists known for backing conservative and libertarian causes. The Republican National Committee, whose chairman, Reince Priebus, is from Wisconsin, has been very active. In recent days, some Wisconsin Democrats and progressives have grumbled that the Democratic National Committee has not been as visible as the RNC. State Democratic Chairman Mike Tate downplays any such talk but makes it clear he's looking for all the help he can get.

MIKE TATE: I don't really want to talk about specific numbers publicly, but look, we need help from every corner that we can get it from, and we would absolutely love and welcome a financial investment from the DNC.

GONYEA: Just yesterday, the DNC said it will host a fundraiser for Tom Barrett later this month. DNC chair, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, will host the event. Barrett, who just won his party's nomination last week, is also getting help from labor organizations and progressive Democratic groups in and out of state. Steve Elmendorf is a veteran Democratic strategist who says the interest in Wisconsin by groups from around the country goes beyond the recall itself.

STEVE ELMENDORF: It's a good sort of organizational test run for the fall. I mean, Wisconsin is a base state for Obama that he's got to win. And this is going to be an opportunity to identify who's for us and who's not and turn them out.

GONYEA: The veteran Republican strategist Ed Rogers has a similar view.

ED ROGERS: It will make a powerful suggestion about both who Wisconsin may favor in the November election, who has a headwind versus who has a tailwind, but it will also say something about the Republican point of view that was swept into office in 2010 and whether or not it's durable.

GONYEA: Analysts predict a tight race. Walker has the advantages of money and incumbency. Barrett is counting on organization, thanks to labor support. Regardless of the outcome, the result will be analyzed every which way by forces outside Wisconsin looking for some angle or some edge for November. Don Gonyea, NPR News.

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