Bush Sees a Rare Chance to Win Wisconsin

Times Staff Writer

When his arthritic knees woke Mark Winzenried up at 5:30 a.m. recently, the retired postal worker flipped on his television and got another reminder of where his state stands in the tight race between President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry.

As if he needed one.

“The first thing I [saw] on the TV is a Kerry ad,” said the broadcast news junkie and ardent Democrat. “All day long, all evening, we see 20 [political ads] in a day. Anytime Bush comes on, I turn it off.”

The constant din of political advertising is one indication that Wisconsin is prime real estate on the 2004 electoral map. And there are many others.


Both campaigns are beefing up operations here in preparation for the contest’s final weeks, and the candidates have been regular visitors. Bush campaigned in Wausau on Thursday en route to tonight’s debate in St. Louis. Kerry pitched camp in Spring Green to prepare for the first presidential debate last week.

Although Wisconsin hasn’t voted to put a Republican in the White House for the last 20 years, the Badger State could be perilous territory for Kerry. While the polls have seesawed back and forth for much of the year, Bush pulled ahead here in early September, and has remained in front in most surveys since.

All of which is troubling news for the Democrat’s calculations nationwide. Kerry could claim the White House even if he lost one or two of the small to mid-size states that Al Gore carried in 2000.

But to do that, he would have to win a major state that Bush carried then -- Florida, for example, or Ohio. Such an equation, however, leaves little margin for error. And losing Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes would make Kerry’s chances for victory far slimmer.

“Bush has a fairly clear lead of a few percentage points,” said John McAdams, associate professor of political science at Marquette University in Milwaukee. But “poor performances in the debates or a lot more bad news from Iraq could push the national polls in the Kerry direction and the Wisconsin polls in the Kerry direction.”

While Bush advisors here say privately that they are confident of a Wisconsin win in November, Republicans and Democrats alike are operating under the assumption that the race will remain close until the end.

And no place is it more evident than on the state’s television screens. So many political ads are airing here -- particularly by outside political groups called 527s -- that one Green Bay newspaper columnist begged Bush and Kerry to get the groups to take pity on the state’s voters.

“Free speech is a wonderful thing,” wrote Tom Perry in the Green Bay Press-Gazette. “But if you gentlemen get a chance, and I know this is asking a lot, maybe you could hint to these special interest groups that they ease up on the gas pedal just a bit between now and election day.”

Wisconsin is ranked No. 5 nationwide in television ad spending by the two campaigns and the Democratic National Committee, according to the tracking firm TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG. But a recent analysis by the Center for Public Integrity showed that outside groups spent more on television ads in Wisconsin between June and early September than in any other state in the country.

“It’s clearly a place that’s going to be close until the bitter end,” said Ken Goldstein, director of the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project. “The 527s are here because it’s a competitive race and because it’s cheaper to play here,” so they are able to have a greater impact than in pricier media markets such as Florida.

Impact, however, is in the eye of the beholder. Mike Sprang, a 26-year-old Army veteran from the Green Bay suburb of Ashwaubenon, plans to vote for Bush in November. He acknowledges that the economy could be better, but he respects the president for leading America to war in Iraq and for standing firm behind his principles.

While Sprang is a fan of the president, he’s no fan of his ads -- or anyone else’s for that matter. “It’s getting to the point it’s so redundant,” said Sprang, who served in Bosnia. “Bush bashing Kerry. Kerry bashing Bush. You can’t get any information on who stands for what.”

The ads have done nothing more than scare Danielle Mueller, 23, a waitress at the Green Bay Packer Hall of Fame Grill at Lambeau Field. Most of the ads Mueller has seen have focused on the war in Iraq. At least one showed terrorist kidnappings, she recalled, and asked something like: “Would you want Kerry to protect you against these people?”

“It’s horrible,” she said. “All you see are the commercials. I don’t know what [Kerry and Bush] will do for the country. Yes, war is a big issue, but when it’s over, what are they going to do for us?

Mueller doesn’t have a clue what she’ll do about the election, except listen to the debates, try to tune out the ads and pray that inspiration strikes her, soon.

In addition to spending more than $3 million on Wisconsin television between Sept. 3 and Saturday, Bush and Kerry also have bulked up their campaign operations.

Bush now has 40,000 volunteers and nine paid staff members in Wisconsin, said campaign spokeswoman Merrill Hughes Smith, who moved to the state Monday. Kerry spokesman George Twigg said the Democratic field staff began at five members in May and now is approaching 100.

“That includes everything from field organizers to crowd builders to campus organizers,” Twigg said. “We are expanding our press operation ... to every market. We’ll continue to add as we go into our get-out-the-vote phase.... A testament to the fact that we think the race is so close is that we’re investing resources.”

Bush has made nine visits to Wisconsin this year, including two in the last two weeks. In Wausau on Thursday, he slammed Kerry for changing his position on the use of military force in Iraq.

“Now my opponent tries to say I made up reasons to go to war,” Bush told the crowd, many dressed in Packer green and yellow. “Just who’s the one trying to mislead the American people?”

For his part, Kerry has spent about two weeks in Wisconsin since clinching the Democratic presidential nomination in March, including his four days of debate preparation. Even on days when he had few public activities, that late September trip kept him on the newspaper pages and the evening news.

In some ways Wisconsin seems fertile ground for the Democrat, having lost more than 50,000 high-paying manufacturing jobs over the course of the Bush administration. Even though the economic outlook has improved this year, and the state has created more than 80,000 jobs of all kinds, state labor economist Eric Grosso said it would take time for Wisconsin to toss off its sense of economic insecurity.

But Kerry, a reserved New Englander, has had trouble persuading voters in this Midwestern battleground that he’s a viable alternative to the folksy Bush. A populist touch is a valued commodity here, and Kerry has had trouble connecting.

When Kerry flubbed the name of Lambeau Field -- the Green Bay Packers’ home and well-nigh sacred ground -- at a recent Wisconsin appearance, “he played into the idea that he really doesn’t understand us, that he’s not a real guy,” said Georgia Duerst-Lahti, professor of political science at Beloit College.

So it was a good move, even if a transparent one, Duerst-Lahti said, when Kerry took the advice of a columnist for Madison’s Wisconsin State Journal, who counseled him in print the day he arrived for debate prep not to “stuff any more facts into that pointy head of yours,” and welcomed him to a state she described as “real-guy training camp.”

The columnist, Susan Lampert Smith, told Kerry that he should watch the Packers play in a local tavern, keep a lid on the foreign policy talk, take it in stride when everyone remembered that he butchered the name of Lambeau Field and “then buy a round for the bar.”

On Sept. 26, the candidate went to the columnist’s small hometown of Mount Horeb and did just that. The result: The next day he was all over Page One of the State Journal, where a man who raises rodeo bulls described him as “a good guy, a real human being.”

But listening to Barb Thompson and Mike Dineen is to understand why Kerry has struggled here.

Thompson, 55, has just endured the worst year ever at the cozy craft shop she owns in rural Kewaunee. “I don’t think Bush has been doing a great job -- the war, the unemployment, the economy in general,” she lamented. But Thompson doesn’t like either candidate and might not vote at all.

Dineen, 43 and a restaurant manager, said he blamed Bush for an economy that had “fallen apart.” The war in Iraq has gone so badly, he said, that “I’m losing faith.... What are we trying to accomplish?”

But Dineen plans to vote for President Bush anyway. “Yes, there are issues in the Bush administration,” he said. “But I don’t think changing things now would help.”