Darren Hauck/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney attends a pancake breakfast in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, Sunday. Romney, just two days before the Wisconsin primary on Tuesday, continues to spend his days campaigning in the state.

Why Wisconsin primary could be start of something big for Mitt Romney

With a decisive win Tuesday in the Wisconsin primary, Mitt Romney could finally claim the mantle of the inevitable GOP nominee. Wisconsin is also important to the Republican Party as a potential battleground state in November. 

Wisconsin's state motto is one simple word: forward. But after Tuesday's Republican presidential primary in the state, it's possible that the way forward will be slammed shut to all GOP nominees but Mitt Romney.

While Rick Santorum's campaign isn't a goner, even if he loses, Wisconsin stands out as a potential turning point in the national election for two reasons. First, the Badger State primary marks the moment when many elected Republicans across the country decided at last to cast their lot with Mr. Romney's campaign. Second, many Republican officials have lately stopped talking about "who" will be the party's nominee and are preoccupied instead with "how" to win against President Obama in November, including identifying which states (Wisconsin, perhaps?) are really up for grabs. 

Heading into the primary, the list of leading GOP figures to back Romney has lengthened. First, much-buzzed-about vice-presidential prospect Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida endorsed Romney last week. Then Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky stopped just short of endorsing Romey on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday, saying the odds are "overwhelming" that the former Massachusetts governor will lead the party in November. "Most" Senate Republicans, he added, have already backed Romney "or they have the view that I do, that it’s time to turn our attention to the fall campaign and begin to make the case against the president of the United States." 

Former President George H.W. Bush gave Romney his endorsement last week, following in the footsteps of his son, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who did so a week earlier.

But why now, ahead of this particular primary? Wisconsin, the thinking goes, could be the leading edge of a knockout blow. Several states where the GOP electorate is more moderate, mainly in the Northeast, will hold their nominating contests in April: Maryland and Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, followed by Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania on April 24. These favor Romney. In Pennsylvania, Mr. Santorum's home state and a place he has vowed to triumph, recent polling shows the race to be a dead heat.

There's more to the Wisconsin contest than its spot in the calendar, however. Party leaders sense that this state, which hasn't given its electoral votes to a Republican presidential contender since President Ronald Reagan's bid for a second term, might be in play come November. They know they have two of the GOP's brightest young stars to help carry the GOP message in Wisconsin – native sons Sen. Ron Johnson and Rep. Paul Ryan, both of whom gave their endorsements to Romney in recent days. 

When Wisconsin voters tossed progressive icon Russ Feingold from his US Senate seat in 2010, they sent Senator Johnson, a tea-party favorite, to Washington in his stead. Johnson, who endorsed Romney Sunday on "Meet the Press," said minority leader McConnell has designated him to be the main liaison between congressional Republicans and the eventual GOP presidential nominee.

Then there's Representative Ryan, the House budget committee chairman whose budget proposals have become political lightning rods on the left and right. Ryan, whose budget passed the House with nary a Democratic vote on Thursday, endorsed Romney the next day and did little to tamp down speculation he could be the vice-presidential pick.

Whether Wisconsin really is a swing state may depend on the outcome of the state's high-profile gubernatorial recall slated for June 5, with a labor-driven coalition attempting to unseat Republican Gov. Scott Walker over his rollback of labor rights. Republicans spin this recall battle as a dry run for how the fight for Wisconsin might go in November.

"By June, when Governor Walker is victorious again, we'll have a confident and battle-tested ground organization," writes Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Reince Priebus, also from Wisconsin, in a memo released Monday. "That organization will be ready to pounce on the president and other Democrats on the ballot with him in November."

Democrats, of course, could make roughly the same argument. They, too, are preparing for battle in Wisconsin. No sooner was the ink dry on copies of Ryan's budget proposal a fortnight ago than Democrats began to decry it as a "Romney-Ryan" proposal that would "end the Medicare guarantee," cut taxes for the wealthy, and shred spending on education and social programs.

At this point, polls suggest the state is Democrats' to lose. A USA/Today Gallup poll released Monday shows President Obama with a 51 percent to 42 percent lead over Romney among registered voters in 12 swing states, of which Wisconsin makes up 7 percent of the sample. In a March Purple Poll of several swing state groupings, "heartland" voters in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa preferred Obama over Romney, 50 percent to 44 percent. Both polls had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

But those margins aren't imposing and, as the RNC's Mr. Priebus notes, President George W. Bush came within 5,000 votes of taking Wisconsin in 2000 and within 11,000 votes in 2004. Obama locked up the state by a massive 400,000-vote margin in 2008.

The White House is paying attention to Wisconsin, trying to assess whether Obama might be vulnerable there. Vice President Joe Biden, in an extended interview for Sunday's edition of CBS's "Face the Nation," clobbered Romney for his positions on foreign policy and for being "out of touch" with the American middle class. That Mr. Biden would deliver such a drubbing is not exactly news, but where did he make CBS's camera crews schlep to for the interview? Milwaukee, naturally.

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