Next Stop for Democrats: Wisconsin

The Democratic presidential nomination is still up for grabs. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are taking the fight for delegates to Wisconsin. Next week, the Badger State will hold one of the country's oldest and most open primaries.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

With one party's nomination all but settled and the other's still up in the air, it may be the perfect time for the campaigns to move to Wisconsin. That's a state with a long history of open primaries. And this next Tuesday is the latest chance for independents and crossover voters to throw a curve to the experts, as NPR's David Schaper reports from the state capital of Madison.

DAVID SCHAPER: In these polarized political times, it's sometimes surprising to hear that there are still quandaries like this.

Ms. BECKY OLSON (Executive Director, Upper Sugar River Watershed Association): I'm actually looking at both parties and all three candidates.

SCHAPER: Becky Olson is director of a non-profit conservation group in Belleville, Wisconsin. She's having a cup of coffee at the Ancora Coffee Shop, a snowball throw away from the state capital in Madison.

Ms. OLSON: Well, I should say four, but technically the three main candidates -being McCain, Clinton and Obama - because I don't know which way to go. They all have good things to say, and I'm still completely undecided.

SCHAPER: How can someone still be not just undecided between candidates, but between parties a week before a primary? Welcome to Wisconsin.

Mr. JOHN NICHOLS (Editorial Page Editor, Capital Times Newspaper): Wisconsin has the most open primary system and tradition in the country.

SCHAPER: John Nichol's is editorial page editor for the liberal-leaning Capital Times Newspaper in Madison. Being open means Wisconsin voters don't even have to register ahead of time. They can register on site. And voters here don't have to declare what party's primary they'll vote in. All are listed on one ballot.

Mr. NICHOLS: There's been a tradition of people coming across lines to vote for people they liked.

SCHAPER: Nichols predicts epic numbers of Republicans voting in the Democratic primary, not to sabotage the race, but because they really want to. He says Wisconsin is really a romantic state, politically.

Mr. NICHOLS: This is a state that likes to dream and believe, the state that embraced John Kennedy in 1960 over our neighbor, Hubert Humphrey. This is a state that embraced Gene McCarthy in '68 over the incumbent Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson.

SCHAPER: That history, Nichols says, bodes well for Barack Obama, whom his paper endorsed Tuesday. But Wisconsin is far from a slam dunk for the senator from neighboring Illinois.

Mr. PAUL MASLIN (Democratic Pollster): Now remember, there are two Wisconsins here. We shouldn't overstate either one of them.

SCHAPER: Madison-based Democratic pollster Paul Maslin, who had been working for Bill Richardson's campaign and is now unaffiliated, says yes, Wisconsin Democrats do have this progressive tradition that might be favorable to Obama.

Mr. MASLIN: On the other hand, there's a gritty side in both Milwaukee and then throughout the northern part of the state, a very gritty side that, in some ways, may be more receptive to Senator Clinton. So I think it's a tough call.

SCHAPER: Maslin agrees that with John McCain solidifying his lead Tuesday, many Wisconsin Republicans and Independents who would otherwise vote for McCain might be drawn to the Democratic primary here next Tuesday and Obama, but not Mel and Sharon Hartzler of Fond du Lac. Finishing up their dinner at Schreiner's Restaurant, the 70-year institution in the solidly conservative east central part of the state, this teacher and firefighter say they might not vote for McCain nor the Democrats.

Mr. MEL HARTZLER (Firefighter): You've got Huckabee out there, too. I might throw a vote his way. I don't know.

Ms. SHARON HARTZLER (Teacher): We like his really strong Christian foundation, and so even though we know he couldn't win as the presidential candidate…

Mr. HARTZLER: I think it would send a message to McCain.

SCHAPER: Huckabee's planning to campaign in Wisconsin to test his outsider status and populous economic message in a state that identifies with mavericks and underdogs.

David Schaper, NPR News in Madison, Wisconsin.

MONTAGNE: And you can learn more about what's at stake in Wisconsin for the candidates by going to npr.org/elections. You can also get complete results from yesterday's Potomac primaries.

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What's at Stake in the Wisconsin Primary?

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Wisconsin college students en route to a mock Democratic convention, in which student delegates attempt to predict the presidential nominee. Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

Did You Know?

• The Wisconsin primary is open, meaning registered voters can participate in either party's contests. Voters can register the day of the primary.

• Wisconsin offers Democratic candidates 74 delegates, and Republicans, 40.

• Wisconsin's population is 87.5 percent white.

The next few weeks are crucial for both Democrats and Republicans, as the presidential candidates try to earn enough delegates to secure their parties' nominations.

On the Democratic side, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton could use a win between now and key March 4 contests in Texas and Ohio. The Wisconsin primary on Feb. 19 offers Clinton the chance to disrupt Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's winning streak. Since Super Tuesday, Obama has won eight contests in a row — most recently, in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

For the Republicans, Wisconsin will offer Arizona Sen. John McCain the chance to pick up more delegates. The state's demographic make-up — overwhelmingly white, with a large number of Democratic, independent and progressive voters — favors McCain: These groups have been the bedrock of much of his support during the primaries.

Look for campaign stops and television ads in Wisconsin in the coming days. Both Obama and Clinton (through her daughter, Chelsea) have already begun campaigning in the state.

The Democrats

Candidates: New York Sen. Hillary Clinton; Illinois Sen. Barack Obama

What's at Stake: Clinton and Obama are battling for the 74 delegates at stake in Wisconsin — and for the momentum that victory there would bring them going into the March 4 nominating contests in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Wisconsin's demographics would seem to favor Clinton, since she has done well with white, working-class voters in many primaries this year (Wisconsin's population is 87.5 percent white).

But the state boasts a history of progressive politics that could benefit Obama. The 1960 primary, for instance, was crucial in helping John F. Kennedy win the Democratic nomination over rival and fellow senator Hubert Humphrey.

In 2004, Howard Dean's failure to win the Wisconsin primary essentially ended the former Vermont governor's presidential campaign. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry carried the state that year and went on to win the nomination.

If Republican voters decide that their party's nomination is already locked up, they — and independent voters — could decide to participate in the Democratic contest; Wisconsin allows voters to participate in either party's primaries.

The Republicans

Candidates: Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; Arizona Sen. John McCain; Texas Rep. Ron Paul

What's at Stake: McCain has far more delegates than his rivals and is still perceived as the party's front-runner, but Huckabee has managed to continue winning — most recently, in Louisiana and Kansas. On Super Tuesday, he did especially well in the South, winning Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, West Virginia and Arkansas.

While Wisconsin does have a segment of evangelical voters — a group that overwhelmingly helped Huckabee win the Iowa caucuses — they have not been very active in the state's past primaries.

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