NEENAH, WIS. — Here's a state that wears its progressivism on its sleeve, proud to have pioneered social innovations such as workers' compensation and kindergarten. Two unabashed liberals represent Wisconsin in the US Senate, and it's voted Democratic in five of the past six presidential races.
So why is Al Gore's presidential campaign struggling - so much so that Republicans who live here along the shores of Lake Winnebago are abuzz over the prospect that their man could actually win?
While it's still early in the election cycle, neck-and-neck polls in Wisconsin have put the state in play for the fall election, upending conventional wisdom and revising the list of battleground states where the contest will be decided.
The same is true, to differing degrees, in several states on America's northern fringe - Minnesota, Iowa, Oregon, and Washington. Losing even one of them could jeopardize Mr. Gore's chances of winning.
"A lot of people assume the northern tier is solid Democratic," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. Although Bill Clinton won these states in 1992 and again in 1996, his coalition was a temporary alliance "put together by an artful politician." These states "are not secure territory" for Mr. Gore, he says.
Analysts cite a number of reasons for the tighter contest this time around. For one, George W. Bush is perceived as a stronger candidate than the last GOP nominee, Bob Dole. And Gore is seen as a less-charismatic candidate than Mr. Clinton, gaining only tepid support even among core constituents.
For another, voters in these states are increasingly independent - and they are choosing candidates who exude a sense of authenticity. The Midwest's most popular politicians - Gov. Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, and Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio - are "far from being slick characters," says Mr. Schier. "That slick Washington patina doesn't travel well out here."
Neenah's Mr. Republican is Oliver Smith, a lanky man wearing a patriotic-red sweater and wide-wale blue corduroys. He's emceeing a meeting of the local Republican Club, like a right-leaning Lawrence Welk.
After talk of taxes and prescription-drug benefits over a lunch of hamburgers and pork chops, Mr. Smith turns to the presidential race. Mr. Dole's 1996 campaign was "goofy," he says. And Bush "has got it all over Dole - and Gore." It will be "an uphill battle," he says, "but I think we can do it."
Polls hint at decent prospects for Bush. A recent statewide survey by St. Norbert College in De Pere put the two men exactly even, at 46 percent. Gore has actually made some gains in the past few months. And Bush's negative ratings grew during his bitter primary fight with Sen. John McCain.
But poll director Christopher Borick is still surprised to see a Republican polling even with a Democrat. "Gore isn't getting the kind of push that one might expect," he says.
Democrats know they've got a tougher fight than usual here. "We're certainly not sitting here so overwhelmed with confidence that we're going on vacation," says Ken Opin, a member of the Democratic National Committee. But, he says, Gore will ultimately triumph because of his stance on issues such as education, abortion, and gun control.
Indeed, pollsters say that part of the reason Bush is doing relatively well here is many voters don't yet know his more-conservative positions. Yet as Bush strikes a moderate tone, he may be able to hold on to those voters.
In Iowa, which voted Democratic in the past three elections, part of the reason Bush and Gore are running even is the economy. Some voters won't give credit for the economic boom to a vice president - even one as active as Gore. "There's some spillover, but a lot of people say it's [Federal Reserve Chairman] Alan Greenspan or the private sector that are driving the economy," says Arthur Miller, a professor and pollster at the University of Iowa in Ames.
Another element of Gore's soft support in these states is his criticism of Bush. "It doesn't gain him anything to be aggressive all the time," Dr. Miller says. "That may backfire on him eventually."
In Minnesota, where the two contestants are also even in the polls, Clinton's ethical residue is sticking on Gore. Or as Carleton's Professor Schier puts it: "Gore is the bathtub ring of the Clinton administration." It's something Midwesterners notice.
And in Washington State - which went for Clinton twice (and Ronald Reagan twice) - a recent poll put Bush at 39 percent and Gore at 38 percent. "You'd expect [Gore] to be higher," says pollster Stuart Elway, "but he hasn't lit any fires." The numbers are similar in Oregon.
Back in Neenah, Wis., state Rep. Dean Kaufert assesses the situation - and could be speaking for many Republicans in the northern-tier states: "It's hard to tell whether this state is ready to go for a Republican - but then again, it's Al Gore, so our chances are pretty good."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society