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Democrats desperately seeking today’s Badger vote

By G.R. Anderson Jr. | Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2008 Local Obama supporters are making border crossings, and the Clintonites are hitting the phones in anticipation of today’s Wisconsin primary. In a virtual toss-up, could their efforts make a difference?

Wisconsin voters in North Lake go to the polls this morning during the state’s presidential primary.
REUTERS/Allen Fredrickson
Wisconsin voters in North Lake go to the polls this morning during the state’s presidential primary.

Monday morning, Keith Pickering made his way through the bowels of a declining University Avenue office building just inside St. Paul. Yet another arctic blast promised to keep the day’s high temperatures barely above zero over much of the Upper Midwest, but Pickering, shedding some outerwear, was undeterred. He rapped on an office door, and in a moment was let into an empty office space that serves as “headquarters” for Minnesotans for Obama.

Inside were seven others — one man, six women, two black, one elderly — in various states of bundled-up attire. The crew decided who would be driving and who would share gas costs, and suddenly they were off, heading to Wisconsin the day before today’s Democratic primary. They were going to brace the cold to door-knock in Eau Claire for Sen. Barack Obama.

Pickering had been in La Crosse Saturday, making him a veteran of the campaign border crossing. “There’s big momentum for Obama and it needs to be continued,” Pickering, 52, of Watertown, said. “Wisconsin is very, very critical.”

The primary phase of the presidential race is far from over in Minnesota, even though the caucuses for both parties were two weeks ago. Obama’s Minnesota supporters have been taking it to the streets in western Wisconsin in recent weeks, energized by their candidate’s string of primary and caucus victories as he and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton continue to slug it out for the Democratic nomination.

Clinton’s backers in Minnesota, suddenly revived by her strong showing in the Wisconsin polls, have focused on the state as a rather valuable feather after her poor showing in the Minnesota caucuses on Super Tuesday. Though they haven’t made any organized caravans eastward, many are taking advantage of a feature on Clinton’s website that allows them to make phone calls from anywhere to any potential voter. They see Wisconsin as Hillary’s chance to reclaim footing in the Upper Midwest.

“It’s very, very close either way,” said Vitali Gueron, a 24-year-old St. Paul resident who spent five hours hitting the phone for Clinton over the weekend. “Wisconsin has a potential to swing toward Clinton.”

‘Most competitive contest’

The question is, of course, can a handful of canvassers and callers from a “friendly rivalry” state make much of a difference with the notoriously independent-minded voters of Wisconsin? What kind of Cheesehead would listen to a Minnesotan anyway? The answer is, well, the race is tight enough: Every little bit helps.

In fact, a poll published Thursday by Rasmussen Reports claimed “the Democratic Presidential Primary in Wisconsin may be the most competitive contest” between Clinton and Obama since Super Tuesday, and the numbers certainly bear that out.

Rasmussen’s latest telephone survey, for whatever it’s still worth, shows Obama “with a narrow four-point advantage over Clinton 47 to 43 percent.” In other words, it’s a dead heat. More tellingly, “Nearly one-fourth of the voters say there’s a good chance they might change their mind[s].” In Wisconsin, 92 delegates are at stake, four more than were up for grabs in Minnesota.

Pickering found less interest in the election in La Crosse than he had seen in Minnesota but more of a connection with potential voters on Monday in Eau Claire. But then again, the weather has been a detriment, and both candidates made big stops in the state last week.

So, where are the votes going? Not surprisingly, both sides see citizens going their way. Pickering said that he knocked on 30 doors on Saturday, and talked to about a dozen people. “All were undecided but one,” Pickering said. “But I got them leaning Obama.”

John Lesch, a state representative from St. Paul, canvassed for Obama in Eau Claire with a group of 20 two weekends ago. “His support goes across all racial and gender lines,” Lesch said. “And I’ve been around a lot of elections, and I’ve never seen as effective of a staff, as dedicated as a staff, as Obama has.”

And that could be one advantage — Obama has had the resources to actually put staff in many states, while Clinton has had to rely on volunteers. It’s clear which candidate is better organized on the ground.

Still, Hillary supporters are still charging. “We’ve been doing a lot of phone calls, and that can’t be underestimated,” said Betty Folliard, a former state rep from Golden Valley who’s backing Clinton. And she points out that Wisconsin holds a primary, not caucuses, which have favored Obama. “Caucuses leave out elderly citizens, a key constituency of Hillary’s,” Foillard said.

In the end, though, in such a tight race, a handshake means more than a phone call. Could small caravans from another state make a difference for Obama in Wisconsin?

National implications in a general election

Wisconsin is also important because of what might happen in the general election. Rasmussen published a report Monday that shows, in a general election, Obama leading Sen. John McCain 46 to 43 percent, while McCain leads Clinton 49 to 42 percent. Of course, the popular vote doesn’t get you to the Oval Office, but Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin are sure to be battleground states in the fight to get 270 electoral votes.

Individually, the states don’t add up to much, but collectively there are 27 votes to be had, with Minnesota and Wisconsin offering 10 apiece and Iowa seven.

A Wisconsin win for Obama, after his strong showing in Iowa and sheer dominance in Minnesota, would make the case that he can take the region. For Clinton, it would be a chance to regain footing after stumbling on Super Tuesday. Clinton barely had a presence in Minnesota, and in retrospect it’s easy to see why: After lending her campaign $5 million out of her pocket, it’s clear that she didn’t have the money to hit Minnesota hard.

“She didn’t advertise in the state, and it was hard to get the message out,” Gueron conceded. “There was only so much we could do. We had a competitor investing a lot more money.”

In Gueron’s mind, Minnesota and Wisconsin, taken together, “are two of the most important states in the country” at this moment. Wisconsin went narrowly Democratic last time out, and Minnesota isn’t as blue as it used to be. The prospect of Tim Pawlenty as John McCain’s running mate, while maybe not as significant as pundits like to think, still stirs enough worry among Democrats — and McCain himself is the kind of moderate Republican who historically has done well in Minnesota. McCain could make a strong showing in the region.

So, for Wisconsin, if Hillary wins, she can boast a comeback of sorts. If it goes Obama’s way, he can say he has convincing support up north. In other words, there’s spin for both sides as they continue to court the superdelegates who will likely decide the nomination.
The only conclusion Pickering can reach after working retail politics this campaign season is that this presidential race is unique. “I’ve never seen anything like it, except for maybe 1968,” Pickering said. “This is the most exciting race I’ve seen.”

G.R. Anderson Jr., a former reporter and senior editor for City Pages, covers politics, the state Capitol and issues related to public safety.