RACINE, Wis. — Al Trossen feels like a wanted man. The former Teamster voted for embattled Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2010 but isn't sure who to support in the state's historic recall election next month.
"There's so much bashing on both sides," the 71-year-old retired truck driver said. "How does a person know what to believe?"
A few days before a Democratic primary that will decide who will take on the Republican Walker, and four weeks until the general election, it's not easy to find undecided voters like Trossen. One recent poll put the percentage of undecided voters in the low single digits.
But that tiny group will be the focus of extraordinary attention now in a fiercely fought campaign that has become a national battle over worker rights. With the race a virtual toss-up, the rival forces — which include the national Democratic and Republican parties, powerful conservative interest groups and organized labor — must hone their closing arguments for people who so far have been unmoved by months of impassioned appeals.
"I don't think there's a huge persuadable universe out there in this campaign," Republican strategist Mark Graul said. With the undecided amounting to perhaps 2 to 4 percent, said Sachin Chheda, a Democratic strategist, "The challenge on both sides is to get people motivated to vote."
Most Wisconsin voters already love or hate Walker. Tens of thousands of protesters swarmed the Capitol for three weeks last year after he made his push to end most public employees bargaining rights to help address the state's budget problems. Recall organizers were easily able to gather nearly a million signatures supporting his removal, but Walker's supporters also flooded his campaign with more than $25 million.
The campaigns and special interests have spent about $40 million on a political blitz that has penetrated every household.
But voters who are still wavering include some who approved of Walker's cuts to state spending but who found his tactics too confrontational. They also include Democrats who sympathize with state workers but think Walker earned the right to serve his entire term. Some say they're still trying to figure out whether Wisconsin's economy is better or worse off with Walker.
"I want to find out the truth. Have we created more jobs?" said Trossen, among the voters interviewed between the southeastern Wisconsin city of Racine and the Madison-area community of Sun Prairie. Walker credits his conservative, business-friendly policies for helping reduce the state's unemployment rate to 6.8 percent, the lowest since 2008. However, federal reports also show Wisconsin lost more jobs in the past year than did any other state.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who lost to Walker by five percentage points in the 2010 election, is expected to win the chance in Tuesday's Democratic primary to face Walker in the June 5 general election. Polls show him leading former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, who has received heavy union backing; Secretary of State Doug La Follette; and state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout.
Sun Prairie resident Cathy Fleury, 50, voted for Barrett in 2010 but is torn over whether he would be an improvement over Walker. She dislikes Walker's tough tactics but says Democrats haven't offered any new ideas for the state's fiscal condition.
"If nothing changes, if nobody comes up with a new platform or any genuine new ideas to make a change, it'll be like a flip of a coin" on Election Day, she said.
Jim Morelli, 52, a safety representative at the Wisconsin utility We Energies, said he intends to listen to what the candidates say about creating jobs and improving the economy. Though he's inclined to let Walker finish his term, "I'm sure there's something they could say to change my mind," he said, referring to Walker's opponents.
The state elections board predicts a voter turnout of 30 percent to 35 percent, or between 1.3 million and 1.5 million people, for Tuesday's primary, which would be the highest for a partisan Wisconsin primary in 60 years. Turnout is also expected to be high in June, and the race now appears to be roughly even.
The candidates are relying on attack ads to sway or motivate voters. TV and Internet ads for Barrett and Falk accuse the governor of cutting funding for education and failing to create the 250,000 jobs he promised in the 2010 campaign. Ads on behalf of Walker portray Barrett as the mayor of a failing city with a poor economy and Falk as a poor fiscal manager.
Undecided voters interviewed stressed that party ties don't matter at this point.
Wendy Hanson of Marshal, about 20 miles northeast of Madison, voted for Walker in 2010 but later signed a recall petition against him. She said she was turned off by his "dictatorial" style, but neither is she impressed by what she sees as a lackluster crop of Democrats. She said no candidates have given her a reason to vote for them.
"The way this is right now it's going to be the way I feel on Election Day, unless something comes out of the box to sway me," the 50-year-old said. "I don't know what that would be."
Richmond reported from Sun Prairie, Wis. Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.
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