LA CROSSE, Wisconsin (Reuters) - The battle over whether to recall Wisconsin's Republican governor, Scott Walker, has sharply divided the state and become a nationally watched test of his party's push to limit government, slash spending and challenge public-sector labor unions.
Tuesday's recall vote also has the attention of two very interested outsiders: Democratic PresidentBarack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, who are gearing up for their November 6 showdown for the White House.
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At a time when national polls show Obama and Romney in a virtual tie, both sides see the wrangling in Wisconsin as a chance to organize and gain early momentum in a politically divided state that could be crucial in determining who wins the presidency.
The recall battle has raged for months, sparked by Walker's elimination last year of most collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions. That led to huge street protests in Madison, the state capital, and to the recall effort that will culminate in Tuesday's vote.
Walker's national supporters see the recall as a referendum on his take-no-prisoners brand of fiscal conservatism, and both sides in the presidential race plan to scour Tuesday's results to gauge the mood of the electorate heading into November's bigger battles.
"The vote here will definitely be seen as a harbinger of things to come," said Wisconsin-based Republican consultant Mark Graul. "The winning side will have tremendous momentum, and there will be implications far beyond Wisconsin."
Wisconsin has not backed a Republican in a presidential election since it went forRonald Reagan in 1984, but Republicans hope a recall win will demoralize Democrats and sharply boost Romney's hopes.
Most recent polls have shown Walker ahead of Barrett, who is the mayor of Milwaukee, by about 7 percentage points in the recall election. But in a reflection of how difficult it can be to read the political tea leaves in a "swing" state such as Wisconsin, polls have shown Obama ahead of Romney by 6 to 10 points.
Obama easily captured Wisconsin by 14 percentage points in the 2008 election, when he defeated RepublicanJohn McCain. Two years later, Republicans in Wisconsin roared back to elect Walker, defeat Democratic U.S. Senator Russ Feingold and take over the state legislature.
"If the governor is successful" in warding off a recall, "it will show the mood of voters is closer to where it was in 2010 than in 2008," Graul said. "And that could portend trouble for Obama here and in other similar states, like Ohio," another Midwestern state that will be perhaps the most significant battleground in the presidential race.
'ROCK STAR FOR THE RIGHT'
Walker's bulldozing approach to cutting state budgets has made him what Barrett derisively calls "a rock star for the far right."
Walker's rising status in the Republican Party has been evident as fellow Republican governors such asBobby Jindal of Louisiana and Chris Christie of New Jersey have appeared with him in Wisconsin.
Former PresidentBill Clinton, a Democrat, campaigned in Milwaukee for Barrett on Friday, attacking Walker's "divide and conquer" approach to governing and warning that Walker's conservative allies will be emboldened if he wins.
The Wisconsin recall has offered another glimpse of how unfettered spending by partisan groups outside the campaigns can drive the conversation in elections - a poignant message as such groups have begun spending what they estimate will be hundreds of millions of dollars on the presidential race.
Conservative groups such asAmericans for Prosperity, funded by the billionaire conservative brothers Charles and David Koch, have poured millions of dollars into Wisconsin and plastered the state's airwaves with anti-Barrett ads. It is part of an effort to make a statement for their conservative cause - and set a tone for the presidential election.
Walker has raised $31 million to Barrett's $4.2 million, and by late April about two-thirds of Walker's 2012 donations had come from out-of-state donors, according to finance reports compiled by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks money in state politics.
"If Governor Walker survives this, then national Republican and conservative leaders are going to see him as the spearhead for a movement," said Joe Heim, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.