Sen. Barack Obama has been lavishing attention on the historically independent voters of Wisconsin. Rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is moving belatedly to make a contest of next Tuesday's Democratic presidential primary.
The senator from neighboring Illinois has spent more time in the state than the former first lady. Obama drew 4,000 people at a rally last October and beat Clinton back to Wisconsin this year.
But Clinton hasn't conceded the 74 delegates at stake even though she has already begun campaigning for the larger delegate prizes offered in Texas and Ohio on March 4. Her advisers say the New York senator may not win Wisconsin but can't afford another of the lopsided defeats she suffered in three mid-Atlantic primaries Tuesday.
Obama drew more than 17,000 at the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison Tuesday night. And he will appear in six other Wisconsin cities before Clinton even makes her first appearance on Saturday. The Obama camp doesn't want to risk a loss or even a surprisingly strong Clinton showing at a time when expectations for him are rising.
Playing down Wisconsin
An internal memo that the Obama campaign accidentally sent to reporters last week projected a 7-point victory over Clinton in Wisconsin. The campaign expects strong support in urban Milwaukee and liberal Madison, and with stops at a Janesville auto plant and in industrial Racine on Wednesday he was trying to shore up support with blue-collar, union households that have been favoring Clinton.
Obama appears to be better organized in Wisconsin than Clinton, who looks to be throwing together her state operation at the last minute, said UW-Madison political scientist John Coleman.
Playing down expectations, the Clinton camp says Wisconsin's primary electorate is liberal and well-educated - the kind of voters who have strongly supported Obama. Even Milwaukee, the state's largest city and home to many of the white, working-class voters who have favored Clinton, is also 40 percent black.
Ground and air attack
Scrambling to prevent an Obama runaway, Clinton plans to spend three days in the state. On Tuesday, she squeezed in three satellite TV interviews with Milwaukee and Green Bay stations amid seven interviews with Texas and Ohio stations. Former President Clinton arrives on Thursday.
A new Clinton TV ad begun Wednesday asks why Obama hasn't joined her in accepting an invitation to debate at Marquette University. "Maybe he'd prefer to give speeches than have to answer questions," the narrator says before claiming that only her health care plan covers everyone and only her economic plan freezes mortgage foreclosures.
While her ad flickered on Wisconsin TV screens, Obama appeared live at Janesville's General Motors Corp., plant a day after the company posted the largest annual loss ever for a U.S. auto company - $38.7 billion in 2007. He strove to link his biggest difference with Clinton - over the Iraq war - to the economic problems that both campaigns have focused on here.
"The housing crisis that's cost jobs and wiped out savings was not an inevitable part of the business cycle," Obama said. "It was a failure of leadership and imagination in Washington ... where politicians like John McCain and Hillary Clinton voted for a war in Iraq that should've never been authorized and never been waged - a war that is costing us thousands of precious lives and billions of dollars a week" that could be used on infrastructure, job training and health care.
The state seems to offer opportunities, and handicaps, for both candidates. For every factor that favors Clinton there is one for Obama, said Charles Franklin, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor and polling expert.
While Clinton has more big union support in Wisconsin, only 25 percent of Democratic voters in 2004 earned less than $30,000. The same percentage earned more than $75,000, a group that has favored Obama elsewhere.
In the 2004 Democratic primary, 89 percent of voters were white, while blacks, who have overwhelmingly supported Obama this year, accounted for just 6 percent and Hispanics, who have been solidly behind Clinton, only 3 percent.
Wisconsin's open primary rules could give Obama an advantage this year. With the Republican race all but decided for John McCain, Obama may benefit from an influx of Republicans and independents, as he has in earlier primaries.
Both candidates were busy courting the student vote, a potentially huge factor. In the 2006 elections, Wisconsin led the nation in young voters at 17 percent.
Joi Ridley, a 25-year-old law student at UW-Madison, showed up to hear Clinton's daughter, Chelsea, speak earlier this week. As a black woman, Ridley said she's had friends lobbying her on behalf of both candidates. Although she said she's leaning toward Obama, she added, "I'm not sold on either one."
Both candidates need to persuade voters they can stand independently from party doctrine, said Mike Wittenwyler, a political consultant who helped run the 1998 campaign of popular Sen. Russ Feingold, who has said he likely won't announce who he is backing until after the primary. "I think the two Democrats have to be able to prove how they fit that Wisconsin mold of personality and independence."
Leading Wisconsin Democrats are split.
Clinton has endorsements from Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton, Rep. Tammy Baldwin and the county executive where Madison is located, Kathleen Falk.
Obama has the support of Reps. Dave Obey and Gwen Moore, the mayors of Milwaukee and Madison, and Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, who said, "This is really a state where these two candidates can be tested."