- The Washington Times - Friday, October 10, 2008

MILWAUKEE | Wisconsin? Really?

“We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t think we could win here,” said Mark Salter, a top aide to Sen. John McCain.

But the Republican presidential nominee, who Thursday began a two-day swing through the nation’s cheese capital, is getting crushed in every recent statewide poll. The latest survey, done by Research 2000, puts the Arizona senator down by 10 percentage points, 51 percent to 41 percent, a four-point shift in favor of Sen. Barack Obama since its previous poll Sept. 22-23.

Polls released this week by Rasmussen and SurveyUSA also give the Democrat a 10-point edge.

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“Right now, I’m not sure what John McCain is looking at,” said Jim Simmons, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. “I don’t see the state as winnable anymore.”

As Mr. Obama expands his playing field - he’s leading in the polls in Republican strongholds like Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Missouri and Ohio - Mr. McCain’s map is shrinking fast.

After pulling out of Michigan - “the economy up there was killing us,” one top McCain aid said candidly - the Republican has just three traditionally Democratic blue states that are even remotely in play: Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

“They have no place else to go,” said Charles Franklin, political professor at University of Wisconsin at Madison and co-founder of pollster.com. “Nothing looks good now … they’ve got to find electoral votes somewhere.”

Well aware of his position, Mr. McCain is hitting Republican strongholds outside of Milwaukee and in the south-central part of the state, looking to make a come-from-behind move and put the state’s 10 electoral votes in the Republican column.

“We can, must, and will win the state of Wisconsin,” he said to thousands of cheering supporters in Waukesha. His running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, was a bit more candid: “It’s gonna be a hard fought battle here - maybe even down to the wire.”

McCain aides say the Republican nominee has long had his eye on Wisconsin and point out that his first campaign stop after leaving the Republican National Convention was in Cedarburg, a suburb of Milwaukee, where thousands turned out on Main Street.

With Mr. Obama expected to win the big cities of Milwaukee and Madison, Mr. McCain is seeking to turn out his base in the suburbs, and he may be able to capture Green Bay, as Mr. Bush did in 2004. The Fox River Valley south of Green Bay will be key, as will a swath of red counties across the central part of the state.

One such spot is Marathon County, where Mr. McCain on Thursday held an airport rally at the Central Wisconsin Airport in Mosinee.

“I think he’s looking real good everywhere but the Milwaukee-Madison-Lake Shore corridor,” said Joe Wachtel, chairman of the Marathon County Republican Party. “Voters are very concerned about Obama’s associations and his Marxist background. They’re very pro-life and the social issues are very important to the voters of Marathon County and Obama does just not cut it in that respect.”

Both sides are pushing hard in the state, which went for the Democrat in the last two elections but by razor-thin margins - 5,700 votes (0.2 percent) in 2000 and 11,400 votes (0.4 percent) in 2004. Mr. McCain has made seven stops here since locking up the nomination, including two with his running mate Mrs. Palin.

Mr. Obama has visited five times, and his running mate, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., has stopped by twice.

Last week, Milwaukee and Green Bay were two of the nation’s top four markets for presidential ads. Mr. Obama spent $1,189,000, while Mr. McCain spent $896,000.

But it’s an uphill battle all the way. Wisconsin has been hurt by the loss of manufacturing jobs, and this past summer General Motors announced it would close its SUV plant south of Madison, costing 2,500 residents their jobs. And then the national economy went into a hard tailspin.

“The polling really turned the week of the financial crisis, September 15,” Mr. Franklin said. “It’s taken four weeks for that to filter through the polling in all of the states, but if you look at the national data, it’s really sharp which day things started to turn.”

The Democrat has also built a strong ground game, looking to college campuses for thousands of votes. Because Wisconsin allows same-day registration, Mr. Obama plans a major push to get young people to the polls on Election Day, but Mr. McCain has fallen short in his efforts.

“Frankly, the college Republicans, who are usually the most active of any group on campus, haven’t been doing all that much - not on my campus, not on most campuses,” Mr. Simmons said.

Mr. Obama has another strength he lacks in Ohio and Pennsylvania. He lost those two states to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primaries by roughly eight percentage points, but he hammered her in Wisconsin, winning by 17 points.

“This wasn’t one of those states where you saw white ethnics, working class, Joe Six-Pack types voting for Hillary Clinton. They voted for Obama,” Mr. Simmons said. “And that’s bad for McCain.”

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