As the Democratic presidential candidates prepare for Tuesday's primary in Wisconsin, the state where former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean once hoped to mount his comeback may wind up putting Sen. John Kerry out of reach - or, at the least, winnowing the race to two viable candidates.
With polls showing Kerry holding a commanding lead in the Badger State, both Dr. Dean and Sen. John Edwards are facing mounting questions as to how long they can compete. Dean in particular may have difficulty going on if he fails to finish in the top two.
Certainly, Wisconsin could still produce a surprise result. There's a reason both Dean and Edwards have focused intensely on this progressive Midwestern state, which has elected a long line of "outsider" politicians, from "Fighting Bob" LaFollette to current Sen. Russ Feingold.
But analysts here also note that the state has been evolving of late. In many ways, it's become as politically divided as the rest of the country, making it an unpredictable - and dangerous - place for candidates to stake their hopes.
"This is a state that kills campaigns," says John Nichols, editorial-page editor at Madison's Capital Times. "A lot of candidates bet on the state's maverick tradition - and then they lose the bet."
Many say Wisconsin's unique political character, rooted in its geographical isolation, has been gradually fading for decades. The expansion of travel routes and, in particular, the reach of television have brought Wisconsin's politics much more in line with the rest of the country.
"Wisconsin isn't as distinctive as it once was," says John McAdams, a professor of political science at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
Anyone can vote in Tuesday's contest - which, besides adding to its unpredictability, could make it an interesting test case for the general election. In 2000, George W. Bush lost this state to Al Gore by less than 6,000 votes, and analysts say it's certain to be hotly contested in this year's general election as well.
"We are a highly competitive state," says Georgia Duerst-Lahti, a professor of political science at Wisconsin's Beloit College. "In the sense that the country is divided almost equally in half right now, Wisconsin is very much a mirror of that."
By some measures, the state has been moving away from its progressive roots - with union membership on the decline, and a general drift to the right on many cultural issues.
At the West Towne mall in Madison, state employee Richard Evans says that despite the primary buzz, he thinks the state will ultimately go with President Bush. A Vietnam veteran, Mr. Evans is unimpressed with Kerry's war record: "I don't like how he came back and disrespected all the vets, going around with Jane Fonda like that."
But in this bastion of "good government," many voters also say they're concerned about President Bush's ties to special interests, and worried about mounting budget deficits - both arguments that Dean, in particular, has been hammering.
Watching the former Vermont governor campaign at the University of Madison, social-work student Linsey Blaisdell says she's likes "a lot of what Bush has done," commenting: "I know what my own values and morals are, and they tend to be on the conservative side."
Still, she adds: "I'm not sure I like way he's spending all the money."
More important, Wisconsin has been suffering from widespread job losses - a factor that could give an edge to Democrats next November, and could boost Edwards in Tuesday's contest. More than his competitors, Edwards has honed his message here to focus almost exclusively on jobs, emphasizing his opposition to trade treaties like NAFTA, which Kerry supported.
"There is an insecurity factor," says Jeff Mayers, editor of WisPolitics.com. "The economy here is in transition: Although we're America's dairyland, it really is a manufacturing and export-driven economy. And there have been some 70,000 manufacturing jobs lost.... Edwards is tapping into that."
Edwards is targeting voters like Bret Lindquist, a 20-year-old from a small shipbuilding town on the northern coast of Wisconsin. "The first year Bush was in office," Mr. Lindquist says, "I got a job. The second year, it was getting thinner. The third year, I had to drive 45 minutes out into the woods" to find work.
This year, after another factory closed in Marinette, he moved south to Madison, where he found work in a gardening shop.
But while Lindquist says he'll vote for "anybody but Bush" next November, he still isn't sure which Democratic candidate he'll choose in the primary.
Similarly, Cheri Chellevold, who manages low-income apartments in rural Darlington, says she hasn't decided whom she'll vote for - but she isn't sold on Kerry. "I'm not sure he's dealing with the issues of normal, everyday people," she says.
Indeed, roughly 15 percent of Wisconsin voters are still undecided, which could propel either Edwards or Dean to a surprise showing - though probably not enough to catch up to Kerry.
But since polls show Kerry drawing support from roughly half of primary voters, with the other half split between Dean and Edwards, the contest here could ultimately make the race more competitive if it narrows the field to a two-man race.
In that case, the most likely beneficiary may be Edwards, who received the endorsement of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Monday, and who has been adamant about his intention to continue on through Super Tuesday.
Dean has also been vowing to continue, but has been fighting back reports that many of his top campaign aides are pressuring him to quit.