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In Winner-Take-All Wisconsin, Primary Is Sideshow To Recall Election

Volunteers at the Wisconsin Democratic Party's recall office in Waukesha entered names from petitions to recall Gov. Scott Walker into their voter databases on March 20.
Liz Halloran

Mary Beth Kopidlansky of Waukesha says she knows who she'll vote for in Wisconsin's upcoming GOP presidential primary (Mitt Romney), but that's not really what she's interested in talking about.

For Kopidlansky, and most potential voters in this most Republican of Wisconsin counties, the contest that is consuming them and the rest of the state is not the state's April 3 presidential primary when 42 potentially crucial delegates will be awarded.

The real race here is scheduled for June 5, when Democrats will attempt to wrest the governorship from first-term GOP Gov. Scott Walker in a recall election sparked by anti-union legislation he championed last year.

"Walker has totally polarized the state," said Kopidlansky, 62, a conservative-leaning independent, after wrapping up lunch Tuesday in downtown Waukesha's Taylor's People's Park restaurant.

"It's now all black and white," she says.

The deep passion generated by the recall and the tepid enthusiasm here for the GOP slate of presidential candidates has conspired to make the presidential contest almost an afterthought, even though the winner-take-all prize could prove crucial in Romney's push to extinguish opponent Rick Santorum's campaign.

Jeni Badertscher, 54, offered a process-of-elimination response that proved typical of those served up by Waukesha Republicans when asked whom they planned to vote for in the presidential primary.

"I haven't yet decided, actually," Badertscher said, pausing.

"But not Gingrich, he turns me off, so overbearing," she said.

"Probably Romney," she said. "Or maybe Santorum."

Wrapping it up: "Bottom line, it's who's going to do the best job and get Obama out."

Gingrich doesn't plan to make a play for Badertscher's vote; neither he nor Ron Paul has any organization in the state, GOP officials say. Santorum, who after his post-Illinois drubbing, is focusing on Louisiana's March 24 primary and his home state of Pennsylvania a month later, also has next-to-nothing in the way of organization but will appear Saturday at an Americans for Prosperity Forum in Milwaukee.

His campaign has also reached out to the Wisconsin Faith and Freedom Coalition about its March 30 event that is scheduled to feature former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and national Faith and Freedom Coalition founder Ralph Reed.

Romney, who has the money and the organization, is expected to open an office in Waukesha County soon. He is seen by most as the odds-on favorite to win in the white-collar, educated county crucial to any statewide GOP victory.

Santorum's social conservatism and his restrictive views on contraception and reproductive rights are less appealing to most Waukesha County Republicans, including Dave Bauer, 71.

Mary Beth Kopidlansky, 62, of Waukesha says she'll vote for Mitt Romney in Wisconsin's GOP presidential primary because "he's a very moral man.
Liz Halloran / NPR
Mary Beth Kopidlansky, 62, of Waukesha says she'll vote for Mitt Romney in Wisconsin's GOP presidential primary because "he's a very moral man.

"I don't know how any woman could vote for him," said Bauer, who favors Gingrich in the race.

Indeed, in the next-door state of Illinois on Tuesday, women favored Romney over Santorum, 46 to 37 percent, according to CNN's exit polls. (Romney also won among men, 48 to 33 percent.)

At Waukesha County Republican headquarters, where volunteers work to keep Walker in office, executive director Cathy Waller acknowledged that the focus on women's health and reproductive issues has not been helpful to the party, and doesn't reflect local concerns.

"Women here are just not talking about that," Waller said. "Our priority is jobs, and we need to get back on track."

Because as Republicans here know, President Obama's massive re-election effort has already come to downtown Waukesha, with an Organizing for America office just a block or two away from the Wisconsin Democrats' "Recall Walker" office.

The OFA office has four paid staffers, a slew of volunteers, and a message that will no doubt feature a certain Republican governor who has become a potent symbol for both parties, and well beyond the confines of the Badger State.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.
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