MADISON, Wis. – John Kerry's (search) rivals for the Democratic nomination are counting on Wisconsin voters to stop his winning streak.
Howard Dean (search) hopes he appeals to their progressive tradition. John Edwards (search) talks about Wisconsin voters latching onto his positive message. Wesley Clark (search) believes independents and Republicans will help him in the open primary Feb. 17.
They set up offices, hired staff and ran ads here before Kerry, but the Massachusetts senator still has a commanding lead in the polls even before his first visit of the primary season. Still, each candidate feels he can break Kerry's stride because he sees Wisconsin as something different from other places — even if it's not.
"I have trouble seeing how Wisconsin is going to be fundamentally different from other states," said John McAdams, associate professor of political science at Marquette University. "Liberals in Wisconsin are a lot like liberals in Massachusetts."
Polls show Kerry likely to win most of the state's 72 pledged delegates. He already leads the second-place Dean in delegates by better than 2-to-1.
Politically speaking, Wisconsin is hard to pin down.
Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette, a Wisconsin governor and U.S. senator, shaped the state's reputation in the early 1900s as he led the Progressive movement.
But Wisconsin developed a split personality. Republican Tommy Thompson ruled the state for 14 years as governor at the same time voters sent Democrats to the U.S. Senate. The congressional delegation is split down the middle. While Democrat Jim Doyle now occupies the governor's office, Republicans have commanding leads in both houses of the Legislature.
In 2000, Al Gore beat George Bush by just 5,700 votes, continuing a 20-year winless streak for Republican presidential nominees in Wisconsin.
Dean pollster Paul Maslin said Wisconsin's demographic mix makes it a great opportunity for Dean and a bellwether for his success nationwide.
"You have everything from rural dairy farmers to blue-collar workers to ethnic minorities in big cities to college-educated liberals," Maslin said. "It's always been an independent-minded state."
Nick Baldick, the Edwards campaign manager, said Edwards' small-town roots will resonate in agricultural areas, while his message of fair trade and protecting working-class jobs will reach voters in manufacturing areas.
Clark, Edwards and Dean are hoping a good showing in Wisconsin will allow them to emerge as the alternative to Kerry before March 2, the "Super Tuesday" election day featuring 10 contests for delegates.
Dean had taken it a step farther, sending supporters an e-mail saying he would drop out of the race if he couldn't win Wisconsin. Then he backed off that pledge — but not until after it helped him raise more than $1.2 million. He passed up campaigning in other states to focus his attention here in an attempt to re-ignite his campaign.
Kerry's rivals are gearing up their ads and staffs for the next week.
Dean has bought about $250,000 worth of airtime so far to saturate all five media markets in the state with commercials this week, and he could boost his buy.
He tried to drum up interest by asking his supporters to vote online for the next 30-second spot to air in Wisconsin. Preliminary results show the winning spot features a Dean supporter who said he had been a Republican all his life until Dean came along.
In an ad set to debut Tuesday night, Dean asks Wisconsin voters not to "rubber stamp" a candidate, the same plea he's making on the campaign trail this week. He also planned to increase his paid staff in Wisconsin to almost 100, more than triple what it was after the Iowa caucus.
Edwards is spending at least $150,000 this week to run ads at moderate and high levels in five media markets and has doubled his staff to 24, while Clark plans to increase his staff of 20 after the Virginia and Tennessee primaries. Clark is not running ads in Wisconsin.
Their investments have yet to pay off.
Among likely voters, 45 percent are supporting Kerry, according to a statewide survey taken Wednesday through Saturday by Market Shares Corp. for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and WTMJ-TV. Clark was supported by 13 percent, Dean 12 percent and Edwards 9 percent. The poll, which has a margin of error of 4 percent, showed 17 percent were undecided.
"Wisconsin voters are as interested in electability at this point as voters anywhere else," presidential scholar Charles Jones said.