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Santorum and Romney play to Wisconsin conservatives at their peril

FOND DU LAC, Wis. — For Republicans, Wisconsin and its embattled governor have come to symbolize the danger of lurching too far to the right in a presidential battleground state. Now, the party’s top White House contenders are running the risk of making the same stumble as Tuesday’s primary nears.

Rick Santorum has traveled the state railing against Mitt Romney for his healthcare record as governor of Massachusetts, heaping scorn on the requirement that religious institutions cover contraception in their medical plans for employees.

“He put a mandate on Catholic hospitals, under ‘Romneycare,’ that they had to provide the morning-after pill, which as you know is an abortifacient,” Santorum told supporters at a bowling alley here on Lake Winnebago. “He also provided $50 abortions — subsidized abortions. And for low-income individuals, free abortions. Under Romneycare — exactly what President Obama is doing.”

Romney, in turn, has made public funding of contraception a line of attack against Santorum. “In the Senate, Rick Santorum voted for Planned Parenthood,” an announcer says in the opening line of a Romney ad airing this week in Milwaukee.

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The prominence of divisive social issues — rather than a tight focus on jobs and the economy — in the race for the Republican presidential nomination has delighted Democrats looking ahead to November. They hope that Republican scuffles over birth control will turn off independents, particularly women.

Democrats are already on the offensive, leading a recall drive against the state’s Republican governor, Scott Walker. Their campaign against him was sparked by Walker’s high-drama conflict with public-employee unions, a clash that has galvanized organized labor nationwide.

At the same time, Wisconsin’s best-known Republican congressman,Paul D. Ryan, has become a national target for Democrats, who have cast his proposed budget cuts as a threat to the survival of Medicare coverage for the elderly.

The stakes for Wisconsin’s primary are high, especially for Santorum. An upset over Romney would break a pattern set by Michigan, Ohio and Illinois. Each of the big Great Lakes states were once within Santorum’s grasp, only to slip away under a ferocious advertising assault by Romney and his allies.

If the pattern holds, the former Pennsylvania senator will suffer another letdown, diminishing his already slim prospects for winning the nomination.

But Wisconsin has a proud tradition of going its own way. Its independent streak is strong enough to inspire the Romney forces to dump more than $3 million into TV and radio ads. Residents of Green Bay, La Crosse, Wausau, Milwaukee and the vast rolling dairy country in between could hardly miss the strafing of Santorum on the air — a sign of Romney’s recognition of the trouble he would face should he lose Wisconsin.

On Tuesday, Marquette University Law School released a poll showing Romney ahead of Santorum, but within the margin of error.

“Wisconsin is the kind of state where Santorum may well surprise people,” said Lawrence Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political scientist.

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Romney, who has been prospecting for campaign money in California and Texas this week, is outspending Santorum on advertising in Wisconsin by nearly 5 to 1, according to NBC News. Santorum has tried to compensate by dashing around the state to drum up free news coverage with withering attacks on Romney.

Along the way, Santorum has tried to project an image as blue-collar Everyman — a tart contrast with Romney, a Harvard-educated former investment executive who reported nearly $21 million in income last year. (Santorum stays quiet about his entry into the ranks of $1-million-a-year earners in the years since his home state bounced him from the Senate.)

Santorum bowled in Sheboygan on Saturday — “threw three strikes in a row,” he boasted — and in La Crosse on Wednesday. In Green Bay, he drank beer and played shuffleboard at a tavern. He also made the obligatory stop at the football stadium of Wisconsin’s beloved Packers.

“Went on Lambeau Field last night and threw some passes,” Santorum told cheering locals at Ledgeview Lanes bowing alley in Fond du Lac. It is one of the many venues where Santorum has mentioned his roots in western Pennsylvania steel country.

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Santorum has also warmly embraced Ryan and his budget cuts; he autographed a “Ryan for VP” sign at a rally Tuesday in the congressman’s hometown of Janesville, a local paper reported.

Overshadowing the presidential race, though, is the campaign to recall Walker, which has spawned a flurry of TV ads interspersed with Romney’s and Santorum’s. The governor’s confrontation with public worker unions has transformed him into a hero to Republicans and a pariah to Democrats.

“There’s no question that the state is far more polarized than it’s been in the past, and it’s very intense,” said Charles Franklin, the nonpartisan pollster who oversaw the Marquette survey.

In 2010, Walker succeeded his Democratic predecessor in an election that distinguished Wisconsin as one of the biggest Republican successes in a year of nationwide gains. Ron Johnson, a Republican tea party favorite, unseated Sen. Russell D. Feingold, a Democratic icon. Republicans also won control of the state’s congressional delegation and both houses of the Legislature.

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With the recall vote just over two months away, Santorum’s pledge of solidarity with Walker is one of his main applause lines. “I will do everything I can that Gov. Walker wants me to do to make sure that he sustains this recall,” Santorum told supporters at a rally at a banquet hall in Bellevue.

Once Romney arrives in Wisconsin on Friday, he too will declare his allegiance to the governor who has most infuriated organized labor, a powerful force against whoever becomes the Republican presidential nominee. Romney plans to drop by a Walker campaign phone bank outside Madison.

On Saturday, Romney plans to join Santorum and Newt Gingrich in Waukesha at a Faith and Freedom Coalition forum. The gathering of Wisconsin conservatives will be fraught with temptation for the presidential candidates to offer Republican primary voters still more of what will likely cause trouble for the party’s nominee in the fall.

michael.finnegan@latimes.com

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