Wisconsin Ground Zero for 2012 Election

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If President Obama's first trip after tonight's State of the Union address signals anything to the America voters, it's that jobs and the economy will remain his No. 1 focus and also that No. 44 might have some tough work ahead of him over the next two years if he wants to keep Wisconsin's 10 electoral votes in the blue column in 2012.

Wednesday, President Obama will use his first opportunity to follow up on his State of the Union to travel to Manitowoc, Wis., about 40 miles south of Green Bay, to deliver an economic speech to employees at a power technology company.

Although Al Gore, John Kerry and President Obama all carried the Badger state in the past three presidential elections, Wisconsin is a state where the Democratic Party held power and arguably suffered a defeat there worse than its losses in any other state during the Republican's landslide victories in the 2010 elections.

Both chambers of the state legislature flipped to Republican rule. Republican Scott Walker handily won the governor's seat that was previously held by two-term Democratic Governor Jim Doyle, an Obama supporter who decided not to seek reelection in 2010. The Wisconsin GOP also picked up two seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, and voters unseated Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold, who served in the U.S. Senate for 18 years before Republican businessman and now Sen. Ron Johnson defeated him last fall.

"I think it's the Democrats' nightmare, a state that Obama won quite handily has suddenly switched at all levels," said Charles Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "This really puts the fear of God in Democrats that Wisconsin might stay in Republican mode, in which case for the 2012 Obama reelection campaign is particularly frightening."

For the state's political U-turn last fall, Republicans across the nation are certainly taking notice.

Tonight, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., will deliver the GOP's official response to President Obama's State of the Union address. Ryan is a policy intellectual and one of the few members of Congress who have proposed serious ways to address the increasing deficit, but his proposals -- which would curtail the growth of Social Security spending and ultimately replace Medicare with a voucher program -- are controversial and have not been endorsed by the House GOP leadership.

That recognition also came in the form of a promotion for Wisconsin State GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, who was just elected the party's national chairman. Priebus won on the seventh ballot, defeating former RNC chairman Michael Steele, and Maria Cino, a seasoned GOP operative that was backed by former Vice President Dick Cheney and Speaker of the House John Boehner.

Franklin says that the GOP's win up and down the ballot was due to voter turnout and that whichever party can get out the vote in 2012 stands to win Wisconsin's electoral votes.

"What we saw [in the 2010 election] was that this wasn't just a state and local landslide, it extended to the federal level," Franklin said. "This was major sweep and it really shows up in the polling data with voters in Wisconsin calling themselves much more conservative in the 2010 election than they had done in the 2008. Now some part of that is discouraged Democrats who did not turn out in 2010 who were the reverse of the discouraged Republicans who had not turned out in 2008. So one of the big battles going into 2012 will be are both parties equally energized for the 2012 campaign or is there some imbalance between the parties in enthusiasm then."

But with the Green Bay Packers Super Bowl bid dominating the news cycle throughout Wisconsin, how many will even notice when Air Force One touches down in Green Bay on Wednesday morning?

President Obama probably did not help his reelection campaign much in Wisconsin when he predicted a Chicago Bears win over the Green and Gold in the NFC championship game and announced he would attend the Super Bowl to watch his home team compete for the Lombardi trophy in person.

After a White House press pool spray with President Hu Jintao in the Oval Office last week, a cameraman asked President Obama "If the Bears win, are you going to the Super Bowl?"

"Oh we're going," President Obama replied. "No doubt."

Those comments stung like frostbite in the bitter cold of the frozen tundra. Even players on the Packers took notice of the president's bold prophecy, and while the president's future schedule no longer includes the prospect of a trip to Dallas to attend Super Bowl XLV, the NFL's 2009 Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson told the rest of his Packers teammates to make their own plans to see the president at the White House .

"The president don't wanna come watch us [go] to the Super Bowl?" Woodson asked his teammates in the locker room during a huddle following Green Bay's 21-14 victory on Sunday. "Guess what? Guess what? We'll go see him!"

In fact, the Packers have initiated such jubilation among cheeseheads that Governor Walker has announced that he will fulfill the request of a Democratic state senator from Green Bay to light the dome of the state Capitol in green and yellow as "a show of bipartisan support" for the Packers. [http://host.madison.com/wsj/news/local/govt-and-politics/blog/article_9db5c3ac-2805-11e0-90fd-001cc4c002e0.html].

President Obama surely knows Wisconsin is crucial to his electoral math in 2012, and has visited the state on multiple occasions during his presidency, including weeks before the midterm election for a massive campaign rally in Madison. But Wednesday's trip is the president's first since the "shellacking" Democrats suffered last November.

"The joke here is of course he's about to need to buy a hunting license," Franklin said. "He needs Wisconsin. Wisconsin is a state he won easily, but if he has to fight hard for Wisconsin in 2012, then he's in serious trouble. So these frequent visits I think are partly laying the groundwork for the 2012 campaign as well as spreading whatever message he wants about jobs coming off the State of the Union."

So what's a bigger deal in Wisconsin -- the Packers heading to the Super Bowl or President Obama visiting Manitowoc?

"It's the Packers hands down," Franklin said. "I don't think Obama could do much of anything except take the ribbing that he's going to get about this."