MADISON, Wis. – Republican Gov. Scott McCallum hopped on a school bus at the start of July to tour the state and woo voters. An aide promptly backed the bus into a tree, knocking it over and doing $1,164 in damage.
McCallum's campaign for election to his first full term has seemed to be one wrong turn after another.
"He's never gotten a fresh start in the race. It's been catch-up ever since," said Don Kettl, a University of Wisconsin political science professor.
Earlier this year, the governor came out with a dead-on-arrival proposal to fix Wisconsin's $1.1 billion budget deficit by cutting off state aid to local governments. It was a rough introduction to voters.
In another gaffe, he insulted a reporter on live TV when he thought the microphone was off. He came under fire for having a coin printed with his likeness in the middle of the budget crisis. And he was criticized for using a state plane to fly 41 miles when driving would have been cheaper and almost as fast.
McCallum's wrong turns are getting attention from above. White House advisers put together a presentation this spring that identified the 52-year-old McCallum as one of the country's most vulnerable GOP governors.
McCallum was lieutenant governor for 14 years before moving up to the top spot in 2001 when Gov. Tommy Thompson left to become President Bush's secretary of health and human services.
The president has taken a strong interest in the race, appearing in a TV ad praising McCallum, helping him raise more than $750,000 in one night at a February fund-raiser and visiting Wisconsin six times in the last 18 months. He is set to visit again on Aug. 14.
Bush narrowly lost to Al Gore in Wisconsin in 2000. Having McCallum in the governor's office in two years could help Bush win this potential swing state in 2004.
Democrats believe Bush's interest shows McCallum is in trouble, and they see this race as their best chance to win the governor's office since losing it in 1986 to Thompson.
"I'm interpreting this largely as an attempt to salvage the McCallum governorship," said Linda Honold, state Democratic party chairwoman.
A poll conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Survey Center in June found only 35 percent of respondents gave McCallum a good or excellent job rating. Thirty-two percent had an unfavorable opinion of McCallum, the highest negative rating of any gubernatorial candidate in the survey.
"Is he in trouble? Yes. Is he doomed? By no means," said Don Ferree, who conducted the poll.
None of McCallum's potential Democratic rivals has been able to capitalize fully on his missteps. He is in a statistical dead heat with state Attorney General James Doyle, Rep. Tom Barrett and Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk. Only state Sen. Gary George has consistently trailed him in the polls.
The Democrats have their own problems. George's nomination papers contained dozens of signatures that were alleged to have been written by the same person, illegible or incomplete. The state Elections Board decided to keep George on the ballot but asked prosecutors to investigate.
One wild card remains Libertarian Ed Thompson, the rough-around-the-edges brother of the more polished Tommy. He is not given much of a chance to win, but he could take enough votes away from McCallum or his Democratic opponent to tip the election.
The second wild card is a series of scandals that have disturbed voters in normally squeaky-clean Wisconsin.
Prosecutors are investigating allegations that legislative staffers illegally did campaign work on state time. One of the state Senate's top Democrats has been charged. In Milwaukee County, the former county executive resigned and seven county board members were recalled in a furor over lucrative pension improvements approved two years ago.
Some analysts say the scandals could lead to a throw-the-bums-out mentality that could hurt incumbents like McCallum.
McCallum overhauled his campaign staff this spring, and his aides have downplayed each blunder.
Campaign manager Darrin Schmitz, who ran Bush's 2000 Wisconsin campaign and came on board during the April shake-up, said the overhaul has already produced dividends. He said internal polling shows McCallum beating each of his potential Democratic rivals handily.
The governor has also raised $1.6 million during the first six months of the year, more than any other candidate.
Schmitz also said the bus tour will help McCallum bring his support for lower taxes, school funding and better jobs to voters.
It has already helped Falk's campaign. The McCallum bus stopped to help one of her aides stranded on the interstate after the campaign RV broke down.