Image: Barack Obama
Jeffrey Phelps  /  AP
President Barack Obama greets members of the Wisconsin National Guards 128th Air Refueling Wing upon his arrival at Mitchell International airport in Milwaukee, Wis., on June 30. On Monday,   Obama makes his third Wisconsin visit in a little over two months.
updated 9/5/2010 2:37:37 PM ET 2010-09-05T18:37:37

President Barack Obama hopes to improve the fortunes of suddenly imperiled Wisconsin Democrats as he celebrates Labor Day with the state's union workers on Monday.

Democrats are happy for any boost he can deliver — though his appeal has been sliding — as resurgent Republicans have two big targets: three-term U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, whose defeat could help them gain control of the U.S. Senate, and the governor's office, which is open for the first time in nearly three decades.

"This has and will give us a shot in the arm, a lot of excitement to begin our political season," said Sheila Cochran, the head of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council, which organizes the Laborfest event. "If his visit reminds them of what we could possibly go back to, then I'm all for it."

While some union leaders have been disappointed with Obama and his ability to push through pro-labor legislation, Democrats are still counting on labor for get-out-the vote efforts and campaign help — crucial to the party in elections.

"I'm glad he's helping," Cochran said. "It shows how valuable this state is."

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Though when Obama is to speak in Milwaukee, Feingold will be about 60 miles away at a parade in his hometown of Janesville. Feingold, who faces a serious re-election challenge from Republican Ron Johnson, planned to be at the Milwaukee event in the morning four hours before the president arrives.

Feingold has said he hopes to appear with Obama the next time he's in Wisconsin.

Obama will be speaking to a friendly crowd, but there's no denying that times are tough for unions and Democrats in Wisconsin.

For awhile it looked like the same Harley-Davidson motorcycles that will lead the Labor Day parade before Obama speaks might not be made in Wisconsin anymore. The company, which has built its signature bikes in the state for more than a century, had been considering a move elsewhere to bring down labor costs, but on Friday the union and company reached a proposed agreement to keep the operations in the state.

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Wisconsin has already lost 35,000 manufacturing jobs since Obama took office in January 2009, and 182,000 such jobs since 2000. Statewide unemployment, at 7.8 percent in July, had hit a 26-year high of 9.4 percent in March 2009 once the recession took hold.

As it has nationwide, the sour economy in Wisconsin has emboldened Republicans who see an opportunity to not only gain back seats long held by Democrats but also hurt Obama's chances of re-election in 2012.

"The president is going to see a sharp contrast between the mood of the electorate today as opposed to the way things were when he first came to Wisconsin," said Reince Priebus, the state Republican Party chairman. "My view is he's going to get met with a pretty cold breeze on Lake Michigan."

Obama has been trying to lend a hand with his presence, with this trip marking his third visit to the state in a little over two months. Just three weeks ago, the president hosted a $250 per-plate fundraiser for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett, who has been targeted by deep-pocketed outside groups.

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Unlike Feingold, Barrett cleared his schedule to be with the president on Labor Day. The Milwaukee mayor faces a tough campaign against either Republican Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker or former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann. Polls show either Republican candidate ahead of Barrett, who started running negative ads in August in response to more than $1 million spent by the Republican Governors Association on spots targeting him.

And Feingold, despite his years in office, is positioning himself as the underdog in his race against Johnson, a millionaire businessman and political newcomer. Johnson is spending millions of his own money on the campaign and has attracted national attention in his bid to knock off Feingold. Johnson is outspending Feingold 3-1 and polls show an unexpectedly close race.

Democrats are also struggling to retain control of the state Legislature and hold on to at least two U.S. House seats.

Obama's frequent visits show that he's not taking the state for granted and it may well be another battleground in 2012, said Charles Franklin, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor.

"I am concerned, I will tell you that," said Cochran, the Milwaukee union leader. "We are going to do everything we can to make sure this county and this state remain blue."

Wisconsin has historically been a hard-fought state in presidential years. Democratic candidates John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000 each won Wisconsin by a margin of less than half a percentage point. Then Obama exceeded nearly everyone's expectations with a 14-point victory.

"He did win here big in 2008 but Wisconsin has historically been a very competitive state," said Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate. "I don't think that's going to change. The president knows he needs to win Wisconsin to win in 2012."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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