Political tenor shifts in Wisconsin

Traditions aside, candidates stressing their ability to win

Barak Obama spoke at the Wisconsin Democratic Party Dinner Saturday. Most polls show him holding a narrow lead in the state. Barak Obama spoke at the Wisconsin Democratic Party Dinner Saturday. Most polls show him holding a narrow lead in the state. (Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)
Email|Print| Text size + By Sasha Issenberg
Globe Staff / February 18, 2008

MILWAUKEE - Perhaps more than anywhere else in the country, voters in Wisconsin have for a century rewarded idiosyncrasy over ideological consistency, investing in candidates for state and federal office who project integrity, passion, and forthrightness - the same type of character-based appeal that has fueled the candidacies of Barack Obama and John McCain.

At the same time, the once reliably Democratic state in presidential elections - it has been blue since Michael Dukakis carried it convincingly in 1988 - has become more conservative, and George W. Bush came within thousands of votes of winning it in 2000 and 2004.

As a result, candidates campaigning in tomorrow's primaries in both parties are emphasizing a particularly un-Wisconsin trait: their ability to win in November.

In dueling, back-to-back speeches at a Democratic Party dinner Saturday night in Milwaukee, Hillary Clinton said she would be the best candidate to "go toe to toe" against McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, while Obama said that his opposition to the Iraq war would offer the clearest distinction between the two parties.

Most polls have shown Obama holding a narrow lead in Wisconsin. Clinton, running as a defender of the Democratic order, is counting on a conservative streak among the state's party regulars to surprise Obama and break his run of eight straight primary and caucus victories before Ohio and Texas vote March 4.

Wisconsin's political culture is not adapting easily to the ascendance of arguments about electability.

At the Saturday Democratic dinner, filled with activists and union leaders, a Democratic Party official began by saluting a former Republican governor and senator. Senator Russ Feingold offered praise for his legislative partner, McCain. And a congresswoman giving a rah-rah speech proclaimed Wisconsin as "a deeply purple state."

Across town the previous night, it would have been foolish to make any assumptions about the partisan leanings of a man wearing a fire-engine red fedora and two American flags in the pocket of his pinstriped gray suit - even if he sat at a table purchased by a Republican party boss at an annual Reagan Day dinner.

"I'm a flaming independent," said Alan D. Eisenberg, a lawyer, real estate broker and former Reform Party candidate for governor who was invited to the fish-fry banquet at American Serb Hall by his friend Bob Spindell, chairman of the local Republican Party. "Spindell draws me to McCain, my wife draws me to Obama. I also like Hillary."

The primary process rewards such wide-ranging indecision. Voters, including those who choose to register on Election Day arrive at polling places without a declared partisan affiliation and are offered a single ballot offering them presidential choices from both parties.

That open-endedness carries over into the general election, where ticket-splitting is common, according to state representative Thomas Nelson, a Democrat elected in 2004 to a Green Bay district that Bush won by twelve points

"I just observed the voters and how deliberative they were," he said, recalling that first race. "They had six races and each voter took a few minutes to go through it."

Both Democrats and Republicans say that mentality will offer an opening in November for McCain, whose liberal positions on the environment, his attacks on federal spending, and work with Feingold on campaign finance legislation have given him an unusually strong crossover appeal to Wisconsin Democrats and independents.

"There's a much stronger awareness about his positions than most of the other candidates, clearly because of his alignment with Feingold. People have admired his stance on campaign reform," said Alan LaFreniere, a retired corporate executive and Democratic party volunteer in Mequon, a Milwaukee suburb.

"There's a terrific opportunity here for McCain. He fits the mold of a Wisconsin independent," said former Senator Robert Kasten, a Republican who initially supported Rudy Giuliani and last week endorsed McCain, but struggled to describe what made his candidate such a good fit. "I don't know if it's possible to be a 'populist conservative,' " he mused.

Those attempting to categorize the political leanings of Wisconsin voters often fall back on a historical roll call of successful eccentrics, winners in a hundred-year war against the idea that electability can be easily characterized.

The Republican Party launched both progressive champion Robert LaFollette and anti-Communist crusader Joseph McCarthy, within a generation of each other.

Democrats produced William Proxmire, a legislative spendthrift who bestowed "Golden Fleece" awards on wasteful projects; Patrick Lucey, a governor who ran for vice president with a Republican on an independent ticket; and Feingold, who stood alone to his party's left by opposing the Patriot Act and to its right by voting for an impeachment count against Bill Clinton.

"It's a maverick kind of state - we like independents and fiscal conservatism," said Kasten.

McCain faces a continued primary challenge tomorrow from former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who has campaigned intensively in the state but took a detour to the Cayman Islands to give a paid speech just as a massive weekend snowstorm was scheduled to arrive in Wisconsin. Despite lagging in statewide polls, Huckabee could pick up delegates by carrying some of the state's western congressional districts, which are more rural and have a growing evangelical population.

On the Democratic side, Obama is counting on a coalition of urban blacks in Milwaukee, Kenosha, and Racine joined with white liberals around Madison who are drawn to his antiwar, reform message.

In addition to Wisconsin, Obama was also hoping to win tomorrow's caucuses in Hawaii, where he was born. He entered the week with a slight lead in pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention, according to an Associated Press count.

Obama, who has done well with white men in other states, may struggle to win over Wisconsin's Reagan Democrats, the blue-collar, white-ethnic voters who have long been guardians of the cultural status quo and have been Clinton's core supporters.

They received the Reagan name after the incumbent president visited Serb Hall in his 1984 reelection campaign, the first Republican ever to seek votes at a venue long associated with urban Democratic politics.

"You have a large constituency of people who vote against change," said John Norquist, a former Milwaukee mayor who represented the neighborhood surrounding Serb Hall while a state legislator. "They vote in Democratic primaries, but sometimes vote Republican in the fall."

Fighting over a confused electorate, the Democratic candidates have not stuck only to their electability arguments, and have engaged in some of their most unpredictably contentious campaigning in the past week.

Clinton and Obama explored issue differences over trade agreements, healthcare, and economic policy, but it was a matter of electoral protocol that elicited the pair's first exchange of negative ads this year: Obama's rejection of Clinton's offer to debate in Wisconsin.

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