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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Five months before Election Day, you'd think there would be no better harbinger about who will win the White House than a contentious statewide vote in a critical battleground state that never moved on from the 2010 campaign.
You'd be wrong.
Yes, there will be tea leaves to read after Wisconsin voters decide Tuesday whether to recall rookie Republican Gov. Scott Walker, a tea party-supported GOP hero who might be the only politician in America to rival President Barack Obama in contentious achievement that inspires loathing among opponents.
A win for Walker and some will say Mitt Romney is sure to be the first GOP candidate to carry Wisconsin since the party's last winner here: Ronald Reagan in 1984. A loss for Walker will lead others to say the presumptive Republican nominee should give up on the state.
On both sides of the fall campaign, there's a feeling the outcome of Tuesday's vote — no matter who wins — will highlight reasons both Obama and Romney should compete hard for Wisconsin's 10 electoral votes. There's an acknowledgement that neither side is likely to wake up Wednesday with a clear edge, given there's so much time left before November.
And there's agreement the Wisconsin recall doesn't say much at all about the presidential race in the other 49 states.
"It's a Wisconsin-specific moment, not a national referendum," said Democratic strategist John Lapp, a veteran senior strategist for several election campaigns in Wisconsin.
Walker arrived in office after his election in 2010 and immediately began an effort to strip union rights from most of the state's public employees. The former Milwaukee County executive argued that's what was needed to balance the state's books, but Democrats and labor leaders saw Walker's efforts as a way to gut the power of his political opposition.
In the face of massive protests, the new governor ultimately succeeded. Defeated Democrats responded by gathering more than 900,000 signatures to put Walker back on the ballot, where he'll face the same opponent he beat to win election, Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
Should Walker lose, most Republicans agree Obama will have the upper hand in Wisconsin. Romney could decide to concede Wisconsin and anchor his Midwestern strategy in Iowa, where polls show the early race close and where he maintains a network of support from his 2008 and 2012 caucus campaigns.
But despite a generation-long favor toward Democrats, Wisconsin has become a closely watched battleground. George W. Bush lost the state by less than a percentage point in 2000 and 2004, and in 2010 voters picked Walker as they also booted longtime Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold from office in favor of a political novice backed by the tea party.
It's also a state with an economy rooted in manufacturing, which means a summer of weak jobs reports and a financial collapse in Europe could make a Barrett win on Tuesday all but irrelevant to voters casting a ballot five months later. Voters could also decide to punish Democrats who invested time and money to oust Walker rather than focusing on the economy, especially if it gets worse before Election Day.
"The public gets very frustrated when they see people take their eye off the economy for politics' sake," said GOP pollster David Winston.
Recent polls suggest it's more likely Walker wins. He led Barrett in a Marquette University Law School poll published Wednesday that also found 92 percent of Republican likely voters said they were "absolutely certain to vote" in the recall, while only 77 percent of Democrats said the same.
A Walker victory will push Romney to move Wisconsin from a group of states he plans to watch into the group of states he plans to contest aggressively — even ahead of Romney's native Michigan, said Romney campaign political director Rich Beeson.
"I definitely think it moves over," Beeson said.
Walker received nearly as many votes in the recall primary as all four Democratic candidates did combined, even though he faced only token opposition in an election focused on Barrett's race. And Republicans at 26 offices scattered across Wisconsin have tracked those voters closely as part of the recall effort, logging millions of phone and door-to-door contacts.
"Starting June 6, those offices will immediately begin working for Romney," Wisconsin Republican Party spokesman Ben Sparks said.
But despite Walker's momentum, Obama's fortunes have held steadier in Wisconsin than in some less politically turbulent states.
A slim majority of Wisconsin voters approve of Obama's job performance, while national polls taken since mid-May find fewer than 50 percent of Americans overall have that opinion. The same Marquette poll that showed Walker leading Barrett by 7 percentage points last week also found Obama with an 8 percentage point advantage over Romney.
That's due in part to independent voters such as Jordan Schelling, a 24-year-old freelance writer from Racine, Wis., who is ready to vote for Walker on Tuesday and Obama in November.
Schelling said he's been impressed by Obama's moves to withdraw troops from Iraq and his landmark health care reform. But in Walker, Schelling sees a governor who has proved to be fiscally responsible. While he thinks some of Walker's tactics as governor have been heavy-handed, they don't warrant a recall.
"There should be a higher standard for the recall process than is currently in place," Schelling said. "I don't think someone should be recalled because a large portion of the state disagrees with what he's done, as long as it's within his legal rights."
Obama's last visit to Wisconsin was at a Master Lock plant in Milwaukee, aimed at reminding voters that the city's traditionally strong manufacturing base remains vibrant. Unemployment in Wisconsin has ticked gradually downward this year, falling to 6.7 percent in April.
While Obama has steered clear of the state since — undoubtedly to avoid any connection between his campaign and the recall — his team has opened at least a dozen offices around the state. They have attracted volunteers motivated by the recall and have been quietly ramping up a ground operation that has remained in place since the 2008 election, said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina
"I've not seen any data that would indicate that Wisconsin is anything but leaning toward the president," he said.
Indeed, the data suggest Obama has an advantage that a Walker win can't negate. The president was particularly effective in turning out African Americans in Democratic-heavy Milwaukee and college students in Democratic-heavy Madison in 2008. Those niches remain strategic advantages, said Tad Devine, a top aide to past Democratic presidential nominees John Kerry and Al Gore.
"That factor alone makes it very hard to put Wisconsin in play," Devine said.