Wisconsin Likely to Remain a Battleground State

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Wisconsin is a politically divided state highly contested by Republicans and Democrats. Gov. Jim Doyle, a first-term Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, a conservative Republican, both believe they represent the state's future.


2006 will be an election year, not a presidential election year, but certainly the opening round of the presidential campaign. One focus of that battle is Wisconsin, a state delicately balanced between the major parties. President Bush lost it in 2000 and 2004, but each time, by a whisker. According to Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, Wisconsin is a circuit breaker, a state both parties need if they're to win in 2008.

Representative PAUL RYAN (Republican, Wisconsin): In 2000, we were moderately targeted. We saw President Bush and Vice President Gore, at the time, come to Wisconsin, oh, maybe twice a month. I had President Bush in my congressional district probably once a week in this last election in the last few months. So we saw the beginning of being targeted in 2000; we were saturated in 2004. I think we're going to be just, well, oversaturated in 2008.

WERTHEIMER: Wisconsin rises in importance because of Ohio. Republicans worry Ohio could go Democratic, the result of scandals surrounding state Republican officials. And that's what moves Wisconsin to the top of the list. The GOP hopes to make an early statement in Wisconsin by defeating the incumbent Democratic Governor Jim Doyle, who is running in 2006. Doyle is expecting a campaign on hot-button issues like gun control.

Governor JIM DOYLE (Democrat, Wisconsin): I think that we will have a very, very intensely contested race. I think that the Republicans in this state, driven largely by a very national agenda, I mean, go after stem-cell research and go after guns and, you know, try to make sure that gay people are marginalized, and that's sort of how they're setting this election up. That's fine with me because I'm going to make sure we're really focused on the things that I think are going to matter to people.

WERTHEIMER: Gun control and conservative family values do matter to people in Wisconsin, according to Republican Congressman Ryan. Add in independent voters and ticket splitters, it could be a recipe for a Republican victory.

Rep. RYAN: Wisconsin is very much of a Catholic state, a majority pro-life state. So I do believe that on moral and cultural values, Wisconsin is definitely a conservative state. So what we've seen is we've seen a coalition of Second Amendment right advocates and rugged individualists combined with conservative family values. Those two elements have formed a majority coalition, which I think will be the success of the Republican Party and the future in Wisconsin.

WERTHEIMER: But Governor Doyle believes the Democrats win by talking about big issues Republicans handled badly, like balanced budgets.

Gov. DOYLE: It used to be the Republican Party would say, `We're fiscally responsible.' They have a hard time saying that. `We don't think the government should intrude into your private life.' My God, they spend half their time figuring out now how to have the government intrude in people's private lives. And that kind of Republican is really disappearing in Wisconsin, and it's an opportunity for the Democrats to reach across and say, `Hey, if you really care about fiscal responsibility and you really care about having the government stay out of your private matters, then you should vote for the Democratic candidate.'

WERTHEIMER: A state senator from Portage County in central Wisconsin, Julie Lassa, agrees. She thinks Democrats in this campaign year and 2008 should aim for the center, and, this time, pick a presidential candidate who can connect with Wisconsin.

Senator JULIE LASSA (State Senator, Democrat, Wisconsin): I think it has to be someone who's more of a moderate but has a strong message about where they want to see the country go during the next four to eight years. I'm hoping that the next Democratic nominee for president will be able to make that connection with people.

WERTHEIMER: We also heard about courting centrist voters on the Republican side. Mike Theo, who works for Wisconsin's Realtors and is active in the state party, says another ferocious campaign on hot-button issues could backfire for the GOP.

Mr. MIKE THEO (State Party Activist): The issue of stem-cell research--for example, the University of Wisconsin-Madison is the leader in stem-cell research, and Republicans have tried to put restraints on that type of research. That's a problem. In our data that we're tracking, stem-cell research is becoming an increasingly important issue for seniors, for women. So I think when they start to go down some of those issue paths, they have to be careful that they're not alienating more folks than they're picking up by trying to highlight it.

WERTHEIMER: The biggest issue in Wisconsin right now is the war in Iraq, and that is causing some erosion on the Republican side, even among single-issue voters. Retired nurse Lorraine Grabowski(ph), sitting in the parlor of St. Peters Church in Stevens Point, told us, her friends and her priest that opposition to the war may be more important than opposition to abortion.

Ms. LORRAINE GRABOWSKI (Retired Nurse): I think Iraq was a major disaster, and I don't think it was right. I'm trying to promote pro-life no matter who--you know, when I talk to my candidates. And I'm hoping that they will take this into consideration so we'll be able to vote for them. But I will not vote for anyone that wants a war. I just will not.

WERTHEIMER: It would be dramatic to say that the war for Wisconsin starts tomorrow as the election year dawns, presumably clear and cold, but it would not be accurate. The political operatives have been there for months and the fight is under way.

You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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