All of the Republican Presidential candidates are in Wisconsin during the run-up to the GOP Presidential primary on Tuesday. But none of them can compete with the recall of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker for voters' attention.
"Presidential Primary Doesn't Register With Wisconsin Republicans" read a typical recent headline in the Washington Post.
Wisconsinites are more focused on the dramatic, highly divisive battle over Walker than the uninspiring race for the eventual (and all but certain) GOP Presidential nominee.
The Presidential campaigns recognize this, and so Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have gone out of their way to associate themselves with Walker.
The Romney campaign left phone messages for Madison voters "to invite you to join Mitt as he phone banks for Governor Scott Walker this Saturday, March 31, in Fitchburg"--a Madison suburb. The event will be held at 4:45 p.m. at Walker's "Madison Victory Center" suite 2003, 2980 Cahill Main in Fitchburg.
Wisconsin blogger and activist Blue Cheddar promptly put out a call on Facebook for Wisconsinites to attend the event with stuffed-animal dogs strapped to the roofs of their cars.
Rick Santorum, meanwhile, told a group of conservatives gathered at the Americans For Prosperity "Defending the American Dream" conference in Milwaukee last weekend:
"Thank you for electing your great and courageous governor."
"I know what it takes to fight the bullies," Santorum said of the public sector unions whose collective bargaining rights Walker all but ended.
But the Presidential race was overshadowed on Friday by a flurry of big recall news.
First, a federal judge dealt a blow to Walker's anti-collective-bargaining law. The Friday decision found that Act 10 had violated union members' First Amendment rights.
Specifically, the federal court decision cited the fact that Governor Walker created two classes of union members--public safety workers, whose unions supported him in the last election, and who kept their collective bargaining rights as well as automatic union dues deductions from their paychecks, as opposed to general public employees, who could no longer have their dues deducted automatically.
"This court cannot uphold the State of Wisconsin's apparent, if not actual, favoritism and entanglement in partisan politics by discriminating in favor of fundraising efforts on behalf of public safety unions over general employee unions," the judge wrote.
The other part of the law the court struck down was the requirement that public employee unions must take a vote of their members to re-certify the union each year--and win not just a majority of ballots cast, but a majority off all members, including those who don't vote.
Again, discriminating against unions who did not support Walker was the problem:
"it seems irrational to impose this unique burden on a voluntary union with highly restrictive bargaining rights while maintaining far less burden on public safety unions in which involuntary membership and monetary support continue to be mandated by law," the judge wrote.
This is a big development, since it reverses the financial stranglement of the unions, which will be big players in the recall race. Public employees' bargaining rights remain severely restricted, with the court deciding that re-establishing the right to bargain on more than cost of living wage increases is up to the governor and state legislature.
The recall elections will address that next step.
Also on Friday, the recall against Walker became official.
The Government Accountability Board finished counting signatures for recall, certified the election, and set a date of June 5 for the general election and May 8 for likely primaries in the recalls of Walker and four Republican state senators. The Republican party promptly announced it will be running fake Democrats in the senate recall races, to force primaries and give Republican candidates more time to raise money.
The GAB counted 900,939 valid signatures to recall Walker. Despite the Republican outcry echoed by Rush Limbaugh about fake names like Mickey Mouse on the petitions, the Board found exactly four fake names out of the million signatures it counted. The rest of the invalid signatures were either illegible or the addresses could not be verified--but the margin above the 540,000 signatures needed was overwhelming.
Finally, on Friday, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett got into the race, announcing his candidacy for governor. Barrett, who was long expected to announce, does the best in polls of likely opponents to Scott Walker. He ran and lost to Walker by 6 points in 2010.
While the national news media continues to call Tuesday, April 3 "Wisconsin's big day," Wisconsinites remain focuses on June 5.
There is no doubt, however, that the state is a hotbed of political energy.
As Paul Ryan put it at the Americans for Prosperity event with Rick Santorum, Wisconsin is ground zero for a national political battle that reaches way beyond the 2012 Presidential race:
"Progressivism was founded here in Wisconsin," Ryan explained. "The battle between conservatives and progressives is coming to a crescendo this year."
LIbertarian candidate Ron Paul did his best to grab some of that energy in an event on the UW campus on Thursday night, March 29.
"The campaign should be about liberty versus big government. Instead, it's about the special interests of one party against the special interests of the other party," Ron Paul told a cheering crowd of about 3,000 people gathered on a chilly evening at the UW's Union Terrace on the shore of Lake Mendota.
Paul denounced college students' mounting debt and the struggling U.S. economy, which he attributed to the power of big banks, the Federal Reserve, and the United States' effort to "police the world" in ill-advised and unwinnable foreign entanglements.
"Make cheese not war," one sign declared.
Rachel Hauser, a 2007 graduate of UW-Whitewater, was taking pictures.
"I really believe in what he says," she said during Ron Paul's speech. "He's the only one who hasn't been bought by the big corporations."
Hauser, a gymnastics instructor, said she had not heard about the controversy over Ron Paul's association with racist groups.
"He believes in states' rights and smaller government and ending the wars, those are the main points," she said.
Chris, a local bike mechanic wearing dreadlocks under a knit cap, was reluctant to give his full name. He also liked what Ron Paul had to say, but wasn't planning to vote for him.
"He says a lot of truthful things no one else will say," Chris said. "Such as the military budget has nothing to do with our security."
Chris compared Ron Paul to Ralph Nader, who he supported when he was in high school. "Like don't vote for Democrats or Republicans . . . the two party system is not working. Just by getting national status and being on TV and saying truthful things, he might open people's minds."
Terry Jaster, a grandmother and homemaker who was wearing a Ron Paul sweatshirt and buttons said she loves Ron Paul "because he's all about my liberty, my freedom, and bringing home the troops."
"I consider myself a blue Republican," she said.
In blue/red Wisconsin, she fits right in.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Wisconsinites Start Turning Back School Privatization."
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter