Wisconsin is home to dairy cows, farms, manufacturing plants, and engaged voters. In the 2012 presidential election, it's also campaign ground-zero, after the political tumult of the past two years, which has left a majority of voters willing to support both a tea party-favorite governor and President Barack Obama, if polls are to be believed.
That might make it seem that voters in the Midwest may have lost their fabled commonsense approach to politics, but members of both parties say that's not the case at all.
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The key to winning the 10 electoral Badger State votes for Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney is delivering honest answers about how they plan to tackle the lingering economic troubles, local experts say.
And nothing did more to charge up the swing-state atmosphere than Romney's selection of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate.
"Without question the Ryan selection changed the dynamic here in Wisconsin," says Joe Zepecki, communications director for the Obama campaign in Wisconsin. "It finally flipped the switch and we basically went from zero to 60 in terms of the presidential contest becoming a daily news item and water cooler topic. It's shone a light on Wisconsin and engaged the campaign here in a way that it just wasn't for the first seven months of the year."
Polls have consistently shown Obama narrowly leading Romney in Wisconsin, but the race tightened further following the Ryan announcement. A recent poll shows Obama with 52 percent support and Romney 45 percent, according to Public Policy Polling.
Ryan is one of three now nationally known young GOP stars from Wisconsin, who includes Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Gov. Scott Walker. But the new guard of GOP-ers exists in the same state that hasn't voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1984 and supported Obama over McCain by 14 points in 2008.
After flipping its governorship and State House from all Democratic leadership to all Republican in 2010, Wisconsin became a national flashpoint in battles over how to cope with soaring budget deficits through paring back public sector union benefits. After weeks of protests at the capital against newly elected Walker, an effort to recall his election was launched. Ultimately, Walker was reaffirmed in the June recall election, racking up even more votes than he had initially.
As a result of the near-constant campaigning in the state since 2010, party officials say their get-out-the-vote and volunteer operations are more robust than ever. They also say voter fatigue is not a concern.
"Because of the recall we had already instituted the largest ground game anyone in Wisconsin had at that point," says a top Romney official in Wisconsin. "Whenever the recall was over, we took that fully functioning ground game and simply expanded it."
Republicans say they have 25 campaign offices open throughout the state. Democrats say they have 65 outlets.
Democrats blame their recall loss on getting outspent on advertising and Wisconsin voters' rejection of the concept of recalling a governor who hadn't broken the law or otherwise performed inappropriately. Republicans say they won because Democrats overreached in their reaction to being shut out of power for the first time in decades and turned off many middle-of-the-road voters with their protests.
In a rare exception to the norm, Wisconsin's federal delegation truly is bipartisan, with one Republican and one Democratic senator, as well as five Republicans and three Democrats in the House.
For the most part, officials are hard-pressed to come up with the stereotype of a typical Wisconsin voter. It's a largely homogeneous state ethnically, with whites making up 86 percent of its 5.7 million residents, according to the U.S. Census. Issues that have gained traction in other midwestern swing states, like the automobile industry bailout in Ohio, have not really been factor in Wisconsin, local officials in both parties say. The last auto-related manufacturing plant, located in Ryan's hometown of Janesville, closed in 2008.
Social issues also aren't strong motivating factors for Wisconsinites, nor are they playing a large role in presidential campaigning so far. Like most of the country, jobs and tax and spending issues dominate peoples' minds, despite Wisconsin's lower than national average unemployment rate. Wisconsin's most recent unemployment is 7.5 percent compared to 7.8 percent nationally. However, that underwater feeling most of the country has is also pervasive.
"The prototypical voter just wants to feel sane and normal again, I think what they want to see is some stability," says one local GOP official.
But a top state Democrat points out that when Walker was campaigning to overcome the recall, he was touting the state's re-emerging manufacturing sector and blanketing the state with ads promoting recent economic growth. That counters the Romney campaign messaging that the last four years have been nothing but economic stagnation.
Brian Schimming, GOP consultant, talk radio host, and vice chair of the Wisconsin Republican Party, says Romney should take his cue from Walker, who has shown straight talk works in Wisconsin.
"It sounds simplistic, but if we were ever in a time in politics where people understand we have big problems, I think we're there right now," he says. He encourages Romney not only to visit the state more frequently but to also utilize Ryan as a Wisconsin-trusted messenger to make his economic case.
One key factor both sides cited is the makeup of the electorate on Election Day, which will be based on the turnout efforts and the general enthusiasm for the election. Democrats are making big pushes for turnout on college campuses, including the 40,000-student flagship, University of Wisconsin in Madison. But Eau Claire in northern Wisconsin and working-class Green Bay in the east are also important battleground cities for both sides.
Republicans are banking on the fact that many of Obama's 2008 voters were first-timers, likely college age, who have been disenfranchised by the slumping economy and won't turn out again. Democrats meanwhile, gleefully point out the Walker recall exit poll that showed voters saying they would have split their ticket and supported both Walker and Obama.
"There are Obama-Walker voters. And for a partisan like me, it's hard to get my head around," says a top Obama official in Wisconsin. "But what they see are guys who have a plan and are trying to get it done in the face of unbelievable opposition on the other side."
The "reformer" label is a powerful one in Wisconsin, and GOP officials say Romney needs to improve his messaging on that front to improve his standing in the state.
"At the end of the day, I think he just needs to keep sticking to the message he's been putting out about fiscal sanity returning to Washington," says Nathan Conrad, communications director of the Wisconsin Republican Party. "The people who have seen it working in our state would like to see it work in Washington."
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Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter.