Obama Campaign Shifts Gears in Wisconsin Strategy

Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo

MILWAUKEE - It's been 220 days since President Obama last visited Wisconsin. He avoided involvement in the state's high-stakes gubernatorial recall earlier this year, has not campaigned for re-election here, and has spent little cash on TV ads, all largely because he hasn't had to. Until now.

Locked in a tight match-up against Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Obama today makes his first 2012 campaign stop in the Badger State for an outdoor rally and pair of fundraisers all aimed at shoring up his base amid an intensifying fight for the state's 10 electoral votes.

Wisconsin was supposed to be a reliable foothold for Obama, who won it by 14 points over Sen. John McCain in 2008. Democratic candidates for president have carried the state in every election since 1984. Now it's a battleground.

"We've always thought Wisconsin would be harder for us this year than it was four years ago," said Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

"We're going to run here, like in any battleground states, like we're five points behind until Election Day," she said. "Today is about energizing our supporters."

Buffeted by the recession, Wisconsin's politics have swung to the right, with voters in 2010 electing Republican Gov. Scott Walker and in June rejecting a Democrat-led crusade to unseat him in protest of a crackdown on labor unions and collective bargaining rights.

The Romney campaign says the fight of Walker continues to energize state conservatives, yielding the most robust grassroots operation in Wisconsin in a generation. Millions of voter contacts made during the recall campaign have been rolled over to the general election, officials said.

Republican strategists say the dynamic creates an opportunity for Romney to expand the electoral map and potentially counter a lackluster performance to date in other swing states that has cramped his pathway to 270 electoral votes.

Romney has held 15 events in Wisconsin since Obama's most recent visit in February, an official stop in Milwaukee to promote his manufacturing agenda. He has been in state seven days, according to his campaign, to Obama's one.

Republicans credit the attention and Romney's selection of Janesville native Rep. Paul Ryan for vice presidential running mate with boosting Romney in the polls here, and prompting Democrats to rethink their strategy. The Obama campaign began running TV ads in the state for the first time this campaign 10 days ago and has stepped up appearances by Obama surrogates across the state.

Vice President Joe Biden's two visits this year - to Eau Claire and Green Bay - have come in the past three weeks. First lady Michelle Obama held her single Wisconsin rally of the campaign in Milwaukee in late August and later met with victims of the Sikh temple shooting in Oak Creek. Former President Bill Clinton appeared in Wisconsin in June.

All have emphasized Obama's manufacturing agenda and the bailout of American automakers GM and Chrysler, which have factories in the state and rely on parts suppliers there.

Democrats have also assembled an aggressive grassroots organizing operation for voter registration and turnout that Obama aides regularly cite as one of their greatest assets in Wisconsin ahead of Election Day. The Obama campaign has 54 field offices in Wisconsin compared to Romney's 25 so-called "Victory Centers" across the state.

The president's campaign aides have shrugged off a narrowing of the race in Wisconsin as only temporary, telling reporters late last month that the new dynamic was merely a bounce from the Ryan pick.

"Democrats have carried Wisconsin for five consecutive elections," one senior campaign official said. "Let's get a few weeks down past the Ryan pick to see where Wisconsin is in this whole thing."

The latest polling may show that the Democrats' predictions are right. A series of independent surveys on Wisconsin released in the last week show Obama holding anywhere between a five and 14-point lead over Romney. The Real Clear Politics polling average for the state gives Obama the edge by a 51.2 percent to 44.2 percent margin.

Both Democratic and Republican strategists privately concede in interviews that the state will be one of the toughest for Romney to win on Nov. 6. Still, few are ready to call Wisconsin for the president, much less rate it as "lean Democratic."

ABC News' political team rates Wisconsin as a toss-up in its latest race ratings.

Obama's visit, coming exactly one month before in-person early voting in Wisconsin begins, suggests he's leaving nothing to chance.

UPDATE: Obama campaign manager Jim Messina conceded today in a briefing with reporters here that Romney has a robust Wisconsin ground game thanks in large part to the Gov. Scott Walker recall election.

"This is one where … because of the recall election, they test drove their car whereas in other states they haven't," he said. "It would make sense they're strong here, as are we. They are stronger than McCain was in '08, no question, on the ground. But we continue to have a strategic advantage" because of more field offices and infrastructure.

As for the slew of recent polling showing a tight race nationally, Messina said the Obama campaign continues to see "all our pathways" open to an electoral victory through the battleground states.

"We're either tied or in the lead in every battleground state 45 days out. I think you will see a tightening in the national polls going forward. What I care way more about it Ohio, Colorado, Virginia, Wisconsin, etc," he said. "In those states, I feel our pathways to victory are there. There are two different campaigns, one in the battlegrounds and one everywhere else. That's why the national polls aren't relevant to this campaign."

This post has been updated.