THREE days before Wisconsin's presidential primary, house painter Nick Weber is watching a college basketball game on television.
"Brown," he says. "I just can't take Bush anymore and Clinton seems too phony."
That tired-of-the-establishment sentiment is one factor giving Jerry Brown's campaign a chance in this state.
The one-time underdog is gaining against Mr. Clinton as the April 7 primary draws near.
"You have two ways of expressing discontent: stay home or vote for Jerry Brown," says William Dixon, a Madison attorney and former campaign manager for Gary Hart.
"We're losing $18-an-hour jobs; Milwaukee is now Murder Inc.; we've got crack moving into Racine, Janesville, and Madison; our government is bouncing checks. If you don't like it, Jerry Brown is your man." For all those reasons and more, Mr. Dixon predicts a Brown victory tomorrow.
State superintendent of schools Herbert Grover says he's talked to people from all over the state and found "people are mad like Jerry Brown. Clinton's message is absolutely right on, but they're a little apprehensive about him because he represents the traditional political response."
Though Brown had only cursory support a few weeks ago, recent polls show he may have overtaken Clinton in the state.
A Milwaukee Journal survey last Wednesday of 809 likely voters showed Brown leading Clinton 46 percent to 37 percent. Dixon doesn't think it means much. "I'll bet you my hat; Jerry sounds great, but he doesn't mean much."
Wisconsin voters seem to have a history of coming out strong for the underdog, only to forget about him at the polls.
In the 1976 primary, then-congressman Morris Udall threatened to take the wind out of Jimmy Carter's sails here, but Mr. Carter won. Four years ago, the Rev. Jesse Jackson also looked set to win. Like Brown, he drew huge crowds at college campuses and in labor halls. He, too, lost.
Some, however, are calling this election different, a true prediction of what's ahead in the coming months.
"If Brown wins, it will be the shot heard around the world," says Supt. Grover. "That means Ross Perot's going to be our next president."
"That's absurd!" counters Ed Garvey, chairman of the Wisconsin Brown campaign. "Ross Perot stands for the very corruption of the process that Brown is fighting against. We need Ross Perot in the White House about as much as we need ... killer bees."
Mr. Garvey, who says he is "cautiously optimistic" about a Brown win tomorrow, maintains Wisconsin's results will be significant for the remaining primaries.
"I think people are realizing the importance of the Wisconsin primary," he says. "We take our politics seriously here, and I expect a good turnout."
Garvey, who's a former players' union representative for the National Football League, says he's relatively certain about Brown's appeal to the unions.
Jeff Neubauer, state chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, says that kind of support is not hard to come by in tough economic times. "It's the kind of state in which there are many people who should respond to the Brown message," he says.
Brown's 13 percent flat-tax idea is ear-catching, he says, but once people take a good look, they won't like it."
Garvey agrees this could be a stumbling block for Brown, but only because the Clinton campaign, he says, is throwing out "misleading information on 30-second television spots."
Mr. Neubauer says Brown may lack support among dairy farmers. Predicting a narrow Clinton victory, he says, while hard times for dairy farmers may fuel support for Brown, farmers "are well-grounded, salt-of-the-earth type folks." He adds they will likely see Brown as "too flaky." He contrasts that with Clinton's more traditional appeal to rural voters.
Neubauer says a Brown victory is the last thing Wisconsin needs if there's any hope of a Democrat in the White House.
"When Clinton is weakened, that's bad for the Party." The front-runner's broad and diverse coalition of backers, he says, is what Democrats have needed for almost 30 years.
With only 82 delegates at stake, compared to 244 in New York, the Wisconsin primary is far more crucial for Brown than Clinton, Neubauer says. A win for Brown is necessary to sustain him as a credible candidate. "If [Brown] can't win here, I don't know where he could win."