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Wisconsin recall: Did Tom Barrett close gap with Scott Walker in debate?

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D) took an aggressive tone toward Gov. Scott Walker (R) in the last debate before Tuesday's recall election. Polls give Walker a seven-point lead over Barrett.

By Staff writer / June 1, 2012

Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (r.) and Democratic challenger Tom Barrett participate in a televised debate Thursday, May 31, in Milwaukee.

Jeffrey Phelps/AP

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Milwaukee, Wis.

Tom Barrett, the Democratic challenger to Gov. Scott Walker (R) of Wisconsin, took a chance in Thursday night's televised debate, and came out swinging. It was without doubt his last big opportunity to persuade Wisconsin voters that kicking the incumbent governor out of office halfway through his term represents the best end to a bitter partisan battle that has engulfed the state for the past two years. 

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Down in the latest polls, Mr. Barrett, whose groomed image some political observers describe as "bland nice guy," adopted a confrontational posture toward Governor Walker, accusing him of divide-and-conquer governance and repeatedly reminding voters of an investigation stemming from Walker's tenure while Milwaukee County executive.

Whether it was effective won't be known until Tuesday, when voters go to the polls in the denouement of Wisconsin's long-running political saga. But Barrett's strategy was not without peril.

Barrett, who is mayor of Milwaukee, took a risk in adopting the more antagonistic tone because it runs counter to his image as a unifier, says John McAdams, a political scientist at Marquette University here. “When he starts looking harsh or aggressive, that could hurt him,” Mr. McAdams says. “An aggressive tone works for someone like [New Jersey Gov.] Chris Christie, but it’s a risky thing for Barrett.”

The debate’s fiery tone is likely to light up the respective political bases for both candidates, even if both men's performances were ultimately “a reiteration of well-known talking points,” McAdams says.

The recall election has drawn national – and even international – attention. Minutes before the debate began Thursday, the producer stepped in to inform the audience gathered at Marquette Law School that television affiliates throughout the state would broadcast the next hour live, national cable networks would periodically check in, and that the feed would be carried in real time from as far away as Japan.

Some of the far-flung interest is explained by the fact that only three sitting governors have been unseated through recalls in all of US history. And there's no denying that the stakes are high for both sides in the national arena. Republican interest groups across the US have rallied to Walker's defense, seeing his anti-union, government-shrinking policies as a bold blueprint that other governors and Congress should heed, even as labor groups have dedicated their resources behind ousting him. Wisconsin is also a battleground state in for the presidential election in the fall. 

The latest poll, released Wednesday, showed Walker moving ahead – and raised the debate stakes for Barrett. The poll from Marquette Law School showed Walker at 52 percent to Barrett's 45 percent among likely voters.

One problem for Barrett is that some voters may cast their vote for Walker simply to show their distaste for the recall process itself and to signal that, despite any problems they may have with Walker’s policies, Democrats overreached.

Jim Kramers of Kenosha, Wis., says he is voting for Walker not because he is “against Barrett” but because the recall has had “a very negative impact on the state locally and nationally.” “We’ve become a laughingstock,” Mr. Kramers says of his state.

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