MILWAUKEE –Tuesday’s Democratic presidential primary here is just a way station before the critical March 4 Texas and Ohio primaries, but the campaigns aren't treating it that way.
New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama are skirmishing with their first negative television ads of the election cycle, sparring through surrogates and ratcheting up their rhetoric.
A Clinton spokesman on Sunday accused Obama of breaking a "pledge" to "take public financing in the general election if the Republican nominee agreed to do so as well." The Clinton campaign has also targeted Obama’s health care position in a tough mailer to Wisconsin voters that includes a quote charging him with "unscrupulous demagoguery" on the issue.
For its part, the Obama campaign enlisted the services of Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, a Democratic Party icon who supports Obama, to criticize Clinton's direct mail piece as similar to “the kind of distortion that we had back in 1994" when the Clinton administration health care reform package was defeated.
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In a conference call Sunday, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, an Obama supporter, used the mailer to make a broader argument about the nature of Clinton's campaign in Wisconsin.
"I am also very troubled by this mailer," he said. "It represents how Senator Clinton has conducted her campaign in Wisconsin. Before she even came to the state she ran negative TV ads that distorted Senator Obama's record. She only arrived in the state yesterday. And now we have more of this stuff going on."
All of this is occurring in a state where both campaigns acknowledge Obama holds a slight advantage. Obama, powered by phenomenal fundraising and motivated by concerns about losing momentum as he heads into a tougher stretch of contests, has spent more time and money in the state than Clinton. He also leads in most polls.
Clinton isn’t exactly conceding Wisconsin, but her aides have sought to lower expectations. Their goal is to prevent Obama from running up the score like he did in last week’s Potomac primaries in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia. Clinton is seeking to avoid a repeat by targeting specific areas where her campaign believes her message resonates.
For Obama, victories in Wisconsin and in Hawaii – where he was raised and is expected to defeat Clinton in the other Tuesday contest of note– would give him 10 wins in a row. And it also would widen his narrow lead in the all-important race for delegates that will decide the party’s nomination.
Obama has added another day in Wisconsin to his schedule, while Clinton eliminated one from hers, so that she won’t be in the state on Tuesday. Instead, she’ll be in Ohio, which along with Texas has emerged as a firewall of sorts for her. The two states will allocate a combined 334 pledged delegates in their March 4 contests.
By contrast, Wisconsin has 74 delegates up for grabs Tuesday (Hawaii has 20), with delegates allocated proportionally both by congressional district and statewide vote.
According to an internal strategy memo accidentally emailed to reporters after Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, Obama's campaign privately predicted it would beat Clinton by seven percentage points and win 40 of the Wisconsin’s pledged delegates.
The campaign’s optimistic outlook can be traced in part to Wisconsin’s relatively sizable populations of college students, anti-war progressives, and affluent, well-educated professionals, as well as the large African American population in the state’s biggest city, Milwaukee. Another factor that plays to Obama’s advantage is the state’s open primary system, which allows independents and Republicans to cast votes for Democratic candidats.
Still, Wisconsin’s depressed manufacturing towns, struggling rural areas and its significant population of seniors suggest Clinton will be competitive.
Charles Franklin, a University of Wisconsin political science professor, identified two potentially decisive battleground congressional districts. One is western Wisconsin’s 3rd district, which hugs the Mississippi River along the southwestern edge of the state. This district includes towns with small colleges, including Eau Claire and La Crosse, as well as a fast-growing pocket of affluent, cross-state commuters to the Twin Cities – both groups that seem to favor Obama. But that part of the state is dominated by rural areas and populated with dairy farms where Clinton’s increasingly populist-flavored message can be expected to gain traction.
Congressman Ron Kind, the Democrat who represents the district, told Politico that Obama’s campaign got a head start organizing there, but that "the Clinton campaign has really ramped it up in the last few weeks." Kind, who hasn’t endorsed either candidate, wouldn’t predict how his district would vote.
"It's a tough call,” he said. “I know my own people are split."
The other congressional district to watch is the 1st, which stretches from just south of Milwaukee down to the Illinois state line and westward to Janesville. The district includes old blue collar manufacturing towns such as Kenosha and Racine– classic Clinton turf. But it’s also home to an increasing population of affluent professionals who commute to jobs in Chicago– voters with whom Obama will have an advantage.
More unpredictable will be the district’s southern suburbs of Milwaukee and the high concentration of Catholics in Kenosha County.
Exit polls showed Clinton dominating the Catholic vote until Obama made inroads in last week’s Potomac primaries.
Franklin noted that Catholics, who he said make up 37 percent of Wisconsin Democratic primary voters, will be a key constituency.
“Clinton desperately needs to hold on to the Catholic vote,” he said, adding that Obama was well-served by getting staff on the ground and ads on the air before Clinton. “Voters in these late states are experiencing him up close for the first time.”
Clinton’s campaign acknowledges it likely would have invested more on television ads and staffing in Wisconsin but for the cash crunch it encountered last month, which prompted the senator to loan her campaign $5 million.
Obama’s state offices now outnumber Clinton’s 11 to four and his ads went up on the airwaves more than one week before hers.
According to an analysis of television station public files by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, as of Friday, Obama had outspent Clinton $414,000 to $117,000 on ads in the Milwaukee media market, which reaches about 45 percent of the primary electorate.
Labor is also expected to play a role in Tuesday’s outcome. More than 25 percent of Wisconsin voters came from union households in 2004, according to exit polls, and unions have divided their support between Clinton and Obama. Both have aggressively courted blue collar voters in the state using populist rhetoric reminiscent of former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who had solid support in Wisconsin before he dropped out of the Democratic presidential race last month.
Among Obama’s 10 stops in the state were visits to industrial Racine and Green Bay, a two-year technical college in Wausau and a General Motors plant in Janesville, where his economic policy speech struck a distinctly populist tone.
At a bratwurst joint in Kenosha, Clinton accused a range of corporate bogeymen of predatory business practices. “We need to rein in the credit card companies … the health insurance industry, the drug industry, the oil companies,” she said. Her planto do that will “transfer about $55 million” to taxpayers, she said, pledging some will go “back in the pockets of hard-working people here in Wisconsin.”
Obama has the edge in big-name supporters, with endorsements from Gov. Doyle, Reps. David Obey and Gwen Moore, and the mayors of Milwaukee and Madison. Clinton has the backing of Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton, Rep. Tammy Baldwin and Kathleen Falk, the top elected official in Dane County, where Madison is located.
Both candidates have trumpeted their Midwestern bona fides, with Obama reminding voters at every stop that he has lived in Chicago for 20 years. But he might have taken his hometown pride a little too far on Saturday in Green Bay, home of the NFL’s Packers.
He drew jeers there when he proclaimed his devotion to the rival Chicago Bears. “But, you would not want some guy to come up here and say he was a Packers fan when he was a Bears fan, would you? Of course not. You gotta stick with your team,” he said to grudging applause.
Clinton, who was raised in suburban Chicago, did not make the same mistake. She told the Kenosha crowd that she spent time in Wisconsin as a girl for family vacations, church retreats and a Girl Scout expedition.
“Wisconsin is a place that I have a lot of very happy memories of as a young girl, as a young woman and it’s great being here,” she said at Brat Stop, where a giant plastic Packers helmet loomed over a room in which it would be easy to imagine Laverne and Shirley throwing back a few beers after their shift at the bottling plant. “Who would have ever thought when I was on that Girl Scout trip, I’d be here running for president of the United States?”
Charles Mahtesian contributed to this story.