According to conventional wisdom, Wisconsin should be Clinton country.
It's full of blue-collar voters who have been the stalwarts of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination and the black vote, which has been so strong for rival Sen. Barack Obama, is relatively minuscule here.
Yet Senator Clinton has cast herself as the underdog and, right now, signs point to a victory for Senator Obama in the state's Tuesday primary.
Observers are watching closely to see if he can not only fuel the perception of an Obama juggernaut by heading into the crucial Ohio and Texas primaries with a 10-0 winning streak, but also if he can continue to make inroads into some of Clinton's core supporters, including women and senior citizens.
"If she gets blown out, it would put her in a very weak position for the nomination," says Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University in Providence, RI. "Wisconsin is a state where she should run well, so everybody will be watching to see if she can actually pull it off."
Given that importance and polls that have tended to show only a slight Obama lead, it's surprised some observers that Clinton has spent so little time in the state. While Obama campaigned here to packed crowds for four days last week, Clinton didn't put in an appearance until Saturday afternoon.
Obama has outspent her on TV roughly 4-to-1, while Clinton unleashed the first "attack" ads of the campaign – a mild effort taking him to task for refusing to debate in Wisconsin – and sent out mailings criticizing his healthcare plan.
In person, though, her attacks have been more subtle: jibes at Obama as having little substance behind his fine oratory – and who even copies her proposals when he makes a true policy speech – while emphasizing her own strengths in "the solutions business."
"It will take more than just speeches to fulfill our dreams," Clinton told a large crowd at a Milwaukee Democratic Party dinner on Saturday where she and Obama both spoke.
Republicans also vote Tuesday, though there's less anticipation in a race where the nominee seems to already be decided. And in a state that tends to be more moderate and lacks the strong Evangelical base of the South, Sen. John McCain should beat Gov. Mike Huckabee fairly easily.
Still, experts say it could potentially be a closer race than expected if many Republicans cast a vote for Huckabee or for Ron Paul as a "protest" vote. And anything less than a blowout for McCain would fuel the perception that he lacks the support of his party.
Wisconsin Right to Life was one of the lead plaintiffs against the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill, notes Charles Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and codeveloper of Pollster.com. "It would be very interesting to see how they're taking the prospect of a McCain presidency or nomination…. I wouldn't be shocked to see Huckabee get a decent share of the vote here, but I would be very surprised if he makes it much like Virginia."
While Clinton's campaign has underplayed the significance of Wisconsin as they focus on the March 4 Ohio and Texas primaries, experts say what's critical isn't so much whether she wins or loses, but whether she can make a respectable showing and retain the demographic groups that Obama began siphoning off in Maryland and Virginia, including blue-collar workers, Latinos, and women.
"If Obama on Tuesday night continues these strong inroads among these groups, then that's a signal that as he campaigns in the next weeks in Ohio, there's no reason he can't make similar gains there," says Prof. Fanklin.
At a rally at Kenosha's Brat Stop Saturday, Clinton spoke to an enthusiastic crowd and seemed to try and recreate the sort of "authentic" moments that may have helped her pull off an upset in New Hampshire. During a question-and-answer period, she responded to a young girl asking what she'd do about children with no food or homes, only to discover that the girl was herself in danger of losing her home, due in part to an adjustable rate mortgage.
"Come on up here," Clinton told her, and asked her mother for details about her situation. "We have all these people being forced into foreclosure."
But at the Milwaukee dinner, where Democratic Party insiders packed a large hall, she had trouble generating the kind of excitement that Obama did. His powerful stump speech – in which he repeated Clinton's criticisms to answer them head-on – earned him standing ovations.
"Speeches don't solve our problems, but if we can't inspire people to believe again it doesn't matter how many policies we have," he told the crowd.
Despite polls that have shown only a slim Obama lead – and one recent one that still had Clinton in front – he may be given a boost among late deciders, says Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster in Madison citing the fact that it's an open primary with no real urgency on the Republican side, same-day registration that will allow new converts and young people to sign up and vote, and Wisconsin's proximity to Illinois, where Obama serves as senator.
"We may root against the Bears and the Cubs in this state, but I think deep down it's a good thing in our minds that we have a president from our own backyard," Mr. Maslin says.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin's largely white demographic means that the exit polls may offer some clues as to whether or not the Bradley Effect is still in play. That largely unexplained phenomenon, in which black candidates tend to perform worse than polls predict in white states, seems to have been a big factor in New Hampshire as well as California and Massachusetts. Wisconsin has similar demographics to those states, says Anthony Greenwald, a psychology professor at the University of Washington who studies the issue.
If the Bradley Effect disappears in Wisconsin and Obama performs as well as the polls predict, "that will mean something is changing in the dynamics of the electorate," says Professor Greenwald. Clinton still has some stalwart supporters.
But others, who in theory would be Hillary's base, may be turning away.
Janet, a college administrator was so concerned friends won't understand her Obama support that she didn't want to give her last name.
"I identify with Hillary," says Janet. "But the idea that we need a new day, a new kind of politics really resonates…. I think the time is right for Obama."