By THOMAS BEAUMONT, Associated Press
MILWAUKEE (AP) — Republican Gov. Scott Walker's recall victory in Wisconsin sets the stage for what's now expected to be a hard-fought presidential battle for this Midwestern state.
Walker's solid victory served as a warning for President Barack Obama about the potential hurdles he faces as he fights to hang onto a traditionally Democratic battleground he won comfortably in 2008. And, at least for now, it gave presumptive Republican challenger Mitt Romney a reason to feel optimistic about his chances of winning a state that has voted for the Democratic nominee in the past six elections.
The election tested voter attitudes toward Walker's aggressive governing style as well as a law that ended collective bargaining for most public employees and teachers.
"Gov. Romney has an opportunity ... to come in between now and Nov. 6 and make the case that he's willing to make those same sort of tough decisions," Walker told Fox News Channel on the eve of his victory.
In the coming days, national Republicans and Democrats alike will re-evaluate the Wisconsin political landscape. In setting their presidential campaign strategies, they will take into consideration the state's 6.7 percent unemployment rate — lower than the national average — the heavy chunk of independent-minded voters and the partisan atmosphere that led to the effort to recall Walker.
After an electoral setback, the White House all but dismissed the national significance of Walker's win, except for the part of the election analysis it liked. Exit polling showed voters favored Obama over Romney in handling the economy and helping the middle class.
Obama spokesman Jay Carney chalked up much of Walker's win to a huge fundraising-and-spending advantage fueled by "corporate money and huge donations." He added: "The president stood by Tom Barrett, but I certainly wouldn't read much into yesterday's results beyond its effect on who's occupying the governor's seat in Wisconsin."
Obama and Romney had been waiting until after the recall election to determine how hard to compete here. Even so, their teams had been hinting in the days leading up to the recall about how Wisconsin's 10 electoral votes fit into their state-by-state game plans for reaching the 270 electoral votes needed for victory.
Obama's team, which has been on the ground organizing but hasn't spent money on advertising here for months, signaled this week that it believed the state had grown more competitive. In May, campaign manager Jim Messina had said Wisconsin was trending toward the president. By Monday, he was listing it as "undecided."
There's no doubt now that Obama will defend his turf. Not that he has much of a choice.
Romney now plans to compete in the state aggressively, looking to capitalize on the Republican momentum that carried Walker to victory. His team considers Wisconsin a top target, along with Florida, Ohio and Virginia, and more attractive than even Romney's native Michigan, where the campaign had hoped to establish an Upper Midwest beachhead.
"The close vote on Tuesday confirms that Wisconsin will be a swing state," said Republican strategist Terry Nelson, an adviser to George W. Bush.
An exit poll of voters Tuesday that was conducted for The Associated Press sketched the state of the race in Wisconsin five months before the election, though November's electorate might be substantially different.
Walker supporter Susan Piekenbrock said his victory would likely mean she'd support Romney but not guarantee it.
"Do I like everything Romney says? No," said Piekenbrock, a longtime Democrat-turned-independent from West Allis, a western suburb of Milwaukee. "I'll support Romney if the reform theme is the same as Walker's."
Danielle Scriver's support for Walker is synonymous with Romney. "When you consider Obama is the alternative, it's automatic," the Republican from Racine said.
Obama had a 51-44 percent edge over Romney in exit polling, and more Wisconsin voters said that the president would do a better job improving the economy and helping middle-class voters than his GOP rival would. A sizable 1 in 5, however, said they trust neither party's candidate on the economy, the main issue in the presidential campaign.