MILWAUKEE Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker and his Democratic challenger Tom Barrett barnstormed the state on Monday, the day before a recall election that could remove Walker from office over a law reducing public sector union power.
Latest polls are predicting a close vote, with Walker holding a narrow lead in the single digits, and virtually no undecided voters. Political analysts said the outcome will depend on which side is best able to turn out its voters.
The stakes are high not only for Walker, who would be only the third governor ousted from office during his term in U.S. history, but also for labor unions that have drawn a line in the sand over the union measures.
The outcome will reverberate on the national political stage. Both major political parties are treating Wisconsin as a test of their operations for the presidential election in November. If Walker survives, it could embolden Republicans nationwide that they can defeat President Barack Obama.
Money has poured into the Midwest state from labor unions, for Barrett, and from wealthy conservatives such as the Koch Brothers for Walker. Spending has smashed all state records, according to the authority that monitors campaign spending. By some accounts, the total could exceed $60 million.
Walker, 44, talked with workers at a plastics plant on Monday morning near the capital of Madison, then dashed north to Green Bay, home of the revered Packers NFL football team. The governor will end his day at a late night rally on the south side of the state's largest city, Milwaukee, which is generally considered to be a Democratic stronghold.
"If we prevail tomorrow, it sends a powerful, powerful message," said a hoarse Walker during a morning interview on a local conservative radio talk show.
Walker said that if he loses, "I think it sets (back) any sort of courage in American politics probably at least a decade."
Last year Walker pushed through the legislature a law forcing state and local workers to pay more for health insurance and pensions, limited their pay raises, made payment of union dues voluntary and forced unions to be recertified every year.
The measure angered Democrats and unions, who gathered nearly a million signatures on petitions to force the recall election.
The race is a repeat of the 2010 governors' election when Milwaukee Mayor Barrett, 58, lost to Walker by five percentage points. Barrett was expected to spend much of the day in the western part of the state.
"We have to have a governor who is going to focus on jobs here and we have to have a governor who is not embattled in this criminal investigation," said Barrett on a local morning news television show, referring to a continuing investigation of Walker.
Walker has been dogged by an investigation into corruption while he was Milwaukee County executive before he became governor. Although the governor has denied he is a target of the investigation, Walker has hired criminal defense attorneys and has created a legal defense fund with $160,000.
Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm, who is conducting the investigation, did not return a phone call Monday seeking to ascertain whether Walker is a target of the probe.
Democrats have highlighted the investigation as casting doubt on Walker's ethics. A judge on Monday rescheduled a jury trial for Tim Russell, a former Walker deputy chief of staff, who is accused of stealing more than $21,000 from an organization that helps veterans.
Russell is one of several of Walker's former aides who have been charged with illegal fundraising, embezzlement and fraud during the two-year investigation.
Political activists have converged on Wisconsin on both sides. Civil rights leader Reverend Jesse Jackson joined local religious leaders for a get-out-the vote rally in downtown Milwaukee for Barrett on Monday morning.
After the rally, Jackson huddled with local leaders, instructing them to go to Milwaukee high schools and make sure high school seniors get to the polls.
"Tomorrow morning we work, tomorrow night we celebrate," he said.
State Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, a Republican, announced over the weekend that the Wisconsin Department of Justice will be sending assistant attorneys and special agents to polling locations.
"The June recall election is a significant event in our state's history. The people of Wisconsin need to have confidence that their rights are being protected and the laws are being followed," said Van Hollen.
Seven teams will be assigned to Milwaukee and two will be assigned to Madison. Teams will also go populated areas of the state such as Appleton, Green Bay, Eau Claire and La Crosse.
The U.S. Justice Department also is sending observers to monitor the election.
(Reporting by Greg McCune; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)