By BRIAN BAKST and THOMAS BEAUMONT, Associated Press
MILWAUKEE (AP) — Wisconsin voters are just warming up.
The national political spotlight promises to be hotter than normal this year, considering the series of contests in the state that serve as tests on issues confronting the country as a whole. And that's after Tuesday's Republican presidential primary, which effectively could end the race for the nomination.
Energized Republicans sense opportunities they haven't seen in a generation to complete a turnaround.
"You have an incredibly engaged and active electorate right now in Wisconsin," said Mark Graul, a Republican strategist in the state. "That will certainly hold through to November."
They see the chance to turn back a national effort to recall Gov. Scott Walker in a June election stemming from the first-term Republican's aggressive effort to strip public employee unions of power, and to pick a strong U.S. Senate nominee in August whose victory in November would give Wisconsin two GOP seats for the first time since 1957.
Ultimately, they see this sequence of votes, starting this coming week, as test runs they hope will build toward a Republican carrying Wisconsin in the general election, which hasn't happened since 1984.
"We've never been so optimistic. We have a chance like I've never seen in this state," John Kleczka, a 68-year-old Republican from Brookfield who attended a rally for GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney on Milwaukee's south side Friday.
Walker's recall dominates, despite Romney's chance of putting away conservative rival Rick Santorum on Tuesday.
The recall is the culmination of a fight over the cost of public worker benefits amid austere budget times. Wisconsin's traditionally strong labor movement has attracted national help to fight Walker, elected in 2010 on a promise to get tough with public employee unions.
Other states such as Indiana have pushed to curb public-sector union benefits. But Walker's move, which led to huge demonstrations and national attention in Madison last year, has made Wisconsin the national test case.
It's also seen as an emotional turning point for both sides in a dispute that has raged since Walker jumped into the race three years ago.
The intensity of the battle is clear while cruising around the state of 5.7 million people. Lawn signs with competing "I Stand With Governor Walker" and "Recall Walker" messages offer indications of the deeper philosophical rift.
To initiate the recall, Walker's foes accumulated more than 900,000 valid signatures, almost twice the number they needed.
On a labor row on the edge of Milwaukee, where several unions have their state headquarters, recall and solidarity signs are plastered over windows.
But Wisconsin has weathered the recession better than its Rust Belt neighbors. Personal income has risen $2,000 since 2008, faster than the national average.
Unemployment was 6.9 percent in February, well below the 8.3 percent national average and better than Illinois' 9.1 percent, Michigan's 8.8 percent and Ohio's 7.6 percent.
Wisconsin's agricultural output remains robust while the state's manufacturing sector has also been stable, marked by success stories such as the revival of Harley-Davidson motorcycles in Milwaukee.
Since Democrat Barack Obama carried the state by 14 percentage points in the 2008 presidential race, Wisconsin's conservatives have awoken, uniting around fiscal issues.
Republicans dominate in the three counties surrounding heavily Democratic Milwaukee in the southeast. Democrats prevail in the college and state-worker heavy capital, Madison, about 80 miles west of Milwaukee.
The rest of the state is a blend of blue collar strength in the mill and plant towns in the north, and deep pockets of social conservatives in rural areas, small towns and suburbs.
Republicans recaptured both houses of the Legislature in 2010 and now have the edge in Wisconsin's congressional delegation.
"We have been building momentum a long time," said Mary Buestrin, a Republican National Committeewoman from GOP-heavy Mequon, an upper-middle class Milwaukee suburb.
In the past three years, Wisconsin has begun bending away from more than a decade of Democratic-leaning statewide votes. Tea party favorite Ron Johnson turned back three-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold in 2010.