Is Wisconsin ripe for a Romney win?

Mitt Romney's campaign bus rolls up for his interview with Bob Schieffer on June 16 in Lebanon, Penn. CBS News/CHRIS USHER

Mitt Romney's campaign bus rolls
CBS News/CHRIS USHER

(CBS News) Mitt Romney's "Every Town Counts" bus tour stops in Janesville, Wisc., Monday because, as he told CBS News' Bob Schieffer on Sunday, it's simple: it is one of the states he plans to win in November. Thanks to the current political climate and a Republican power trio there, the Badger State, which has voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in every presidential election since 1984, is showing a glimmer of hope for Romney's campaign. 

The Hero

Gov Scott Walker, R-Wisc., who successfully passed pension-cutting legislation and a measure limiting collective bargaining rights for some public sector workers, is considered the hero of the right and is praised for having strong convictions and willing to fight despite possible political ramifications.

There is "intense personal loyalty to Walker here," Wisconsin Republican Party vice chair Brian Schimming told Hotsheet.

Walker survived an expensive and bitter recall election in June, expanding his support by receiving 205,000 more votes than he garnered in his election in 2010. 

"Walker expanding his lead this June shows that Republicans are still winning the argument," Marquette University law professor Charles Franklin said.

Since his recall victory, Walker offered some words of warning for Romney. He has said repeatedly that Romney must propose "bold" ideas to capture Wisconsin - and the presidency. 

Schimming noted that the recall election allowed Republicans to organize early and often. He said the Republican Party opened 25 offices statewide last November, a full 6 or 7 months earlier than a typical presidential election year. He said volunteers have made 4 million calls and knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors, all possibly beneficial to Mitt Romney in November.

Franklin, who is director of the Marquette Law School polling unit, said the recall shows Republicans are seeing a surge of enthusiasm.

Watch Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's Republican response to President Obama's Saturday address in video to the left.

"Is this significant shift in a Republican direction something that's going to last until November? That's an important question," Franklin said.

The Wonk

Also in Romney's corner is Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., who is chairman the House Budget Committee and is the policy wonk unafraid to tackle large issues and make drastic cuts to social programs to lower the deficit. He provides a mostly detailed account of how he would deal with the debt, and although Romney has backed Ryan's proposal, which would cut more than $4 trillion of spending over 10 years, Romney lacks specifics in other economic proposals, including how he would deal with a continuing foreclosure crisis and how he would alter the tax code and tax deductions he would eliminate. 

Ryan "is a very big positive in Republican circles," Franklin told Hotsheet. Proving Ryan's popularity is the response he receives at political events, receiving standing ovations and a more enthusiastic response than Romney. Ryan, who will campaign with Romney in Janesville Monday, is also widely considered to be a serious contender to be Romney's running mate.

However, both Walker and Ryan face possible negative political fallback, especially for the independent voter both campaigns must attract. Franklin notes that his budget proposals can be "turned against him" as Democrats say the Ryan budget slashes Medicare. Franklin also notes that 40 percent of Wisconsin voters have deeply negative view of Walker. 

The Implementer

Also in Romney's corner is Reince Priebus, the head of the Republican National Committee. Priebus is the former head of the Wisconsin Republican Party, and his knowledge of the state should help Republican activists and the Romney campaign target voters and maximize turnout for Romney.

"He knows the state very, very well," Schimming with the Wisconsin Republican Party, who has known Priebus since the RNC chair was in college, told Hotsheet. "He knows the political vibe of the state as anyone out there," adding that Priebus is "one of the most dogged advocates [of Wisconsin] I know."

Are the trio enough for Mitt Romney to win Wisconsin?

Schimming says, "It's a fight to the finish. The grassroots are as optimistic about winning the state as I've seen them in over ten years. There's a lot of energy out there."

Uphill Battle

"I would still put Wisconsin in the lean Democratic category but I don't think it's far from moving into the tossup category," Professor Franklin said.

Wisconsin has backed the Democrat in the past six presidential elections. However, in 2000, George W. Bush gave Al Gore a run for his money, only losing by just under 6,000 votes, and in 2004 he lost to John Kerry there by about 11,500 votes.

President Obama widened Wisconsin's Democratic margin in 2008, handily beating challenger John McCain, who stopped contesting Wisconsin after the polls showed Mr. Obama with a comfortable lead.

Despite the Democratic-leaning preferences of Wisconsin voters, a sea change occured in 2010.

Wisconsin voters elected a Republican governor and a Republican state legislature. Liberal Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., lost his bid for a fourth term to Tea Party-backed Ron Johnson. Also, outspoken liberal and 21-term Rep. David Obey, D-Wisc, retired in large part because of a tough re-election bid and was replaced by Republican Sean Duffy. Republicans picked up another congressional seat as well.

After the results of 2010 and Walker's successful recall this past June, the Republican tailwinds appear to be behind Romney. But is the momentum from these GOP gains enough for Romney in November?

"I think that's the real question of this year," Marquette's Franklin said. Is "2012 of the rubber game of the match to break the tie" between the Democratic strength of 2008 and the Republican sweep of 2010?

Franklin said President Obama has some advantages, too, including an improving unemployment rate in Wisconsin, which is lower than the national average of 8.2 percent.

"That's the upside for Obama going into the fall," Franklin said.

Democrats and the Obama campaign acknowledge that the race will be close.

Democratic National Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse said, "It's going to be nip and tuck all the way to the end."

Woodhouse suggested it will probably look a lot more like 2004 when Kerry edged Bush rather than 2008 when Mr. Obama handily defeated McCain.

"I think it's a classic close election," Woodhouse said.

  • Leigh Ann Caldwell On Twitter»

    Leigh Ann Caldwell is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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