MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin (Reuters) - President Barack Obama took his re-election campaign to Wisconsin on Saturday, as a new poll shows him surging in the state where liberal and conservative political ideologies have been sparring over unions, budgets and the public sector.
“We don’t think government can solve every problem, but it’s not the source of every problem, any more than all the folks that you hear are to blame out of Washington - you know, gays or immigrants or unions or corporations for that matter,” Obama said in a speech at the Milwaukee Theater.
“We don’t think that anybody is solely to blame for the challenges we face, but we do believe we’re all responsible to solve those problems.”
Obama won the state in the 2008 election, but a repeat of that victory is threatened by his opponent Mitt Romney’s choice of running mate - Wisconsin native Representative Paul Ryan - and by the boost Republicans received when Governor Scott Walker won an election to recall him over a law limiting public workers’ rights.
Obama is squarely ahead in Wisconsin, with an NBC-Wall Street Journal-Marist poll saying he has the support of 50 percent of likely voters compared with Romney’s 45 percent.
The president also polled at 50 percent in two other swing states - Iowa and Colorado.
When Ryan was put on the ticket in August, Obama’s advantage in Wisconsin had shrunk in some polls, and two polls had shown Romney leading by one point.
“I think you will see a tightening in the national polls going forward. What I care way more about is Ohio, Colorado, Virginia, Wisconsin, etc.,” said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina. “I feel our pathways to victory are there. There are two different campaigns, one in the battlegrounds and one everywhere else.”
Walker, who is supported by members of the conservative Tea Party and wealthy Republican donors, signed legislation in 2011 curbing the bargaining rights of unionized state workers and limiting their compensation.
That set off a wave of protests and a movement to recall Walker backed by the unions. Romney’s grassroots supporters helped Walker win the recall vote in a blow to the Democrats that cast a doubt over whether Obama could win the state in November.
“Because of the recall election, they test-drove their car whereas in other states they haven’t,” said Messina. “It would make sense they’re strong here, as are we. They are stronger than McCain was in ‘08, no question, on the ground,” he said, referring to Republican Senator John McCain who lost to Obama four years ago.
Labor generally supports Democrats and the major unions have endorsed Obama, but some union members have expressed concern about his absence during the recall. Obama did not mention the conflict in his speech and, according to his campaign, did not meet with Walker during what was his first campaign visit to the state this year.
A state judge declared the law unconstitutional this month.
The Romney campaign’s Wisconsin manager Danny O’Driscoll noted that since Obama won the 2008 election, the state has unseated long-serving Democratic Senator Russ Feingold, put Republicans in control of the state assembly, and elected Republicans to two congressional seats previously held by Democrats.
Since comments Romney made at a private fundraiser about 47 percent of Americans depending on the government were made public this month, the Obama campaign has seized on the opportunity to portray Romney as an out-of-touch elitist who does not care about the people he seeks to lead.
Still, two tracking polls conducted over the last week - Rasmussen and Gallup - put the presidential election at a dead heat.
While Romney spent Saturday promoting his ideas about security and space, his campaign greeted Obama with a billboard noting the president’s absence from the state that read: “President Obama, in the 220 days you’ve been gone: Our national debt has increased $617 billion. 23 million Americans are struggling for work. Wisconsin can do better.”
Writing Lisa Lambert; editing by Alistair Bell and Mohammad Zargham