WASHINGTON — Wisconsin's blue-collar and liberal traditions run through American pop culture and politics. When the state that gave us Cheeseheads, "Laverne & Shirley" and political progressives holds its presidential primary Tuesday, the results could help determine whether Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama gets the Democratic nomination.
Clinton led there by 9 points early this month, according to one major survey, but two more recent polls show Obama now with a small lead.
Even if Wisconsin turns into a blowout, their rivalry almost certainly will endure through bigger primaries March 4 in Texas and Ohio. Nevertheless, Wisconsin's often historic role in shaping past presidential elections makes it a state worth watching.
President Lyndon Johnson dropped his re-election bid in 1968 when he realized that he was poised to lose Wisconsin's Democratic primary to Gene McCarthy.
Eight years earlier, John F. Kennedy's win in the state's primary over next-door-neighbor Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota helped establish the credibility of his national appeal. In 1992, Wisconsin Democrats narrowly chose Bill Clinton over California's Jerry Brown, pointing the way for the national party's ultimate choice.
In general elections the nation's 18th-largest state, with about 5.6 million residents, also has been a battleground. It chose Democrat John Kerry over President Bush by only 50-49 percent in 2004, and Democrat Al Gore over Bush by about 5,000 votes in 2000.
Clinton and Obama each have constituencies in the state, said Barry Burden, a professor of political science at University of Wisconsin, Madison.
"It's a lot of working-class whites without college educations, who are social moderates and responsible Midwesterners," Burden said. Manufacturing makes up more than one-fourth of the state's industry. These voters are a core part of Clinton's constituency.
At the same time, Burden said, "you do have that progressive, reformist element, and I think the antiwar element is tied up in that." That profile fits key parts of Obama's coalition.
One issue that unites the two groups is a desire for expanded health-care coverage. That helps explain why health care was such a prominent topic in Wisconsin this past week, featured in both campaigns' television ads. The Clinton camp also challenged Obama to debate her not least so she can highlight that his health-insurance plan wouldn't cover as many Americans as hers would.
Two polls taken since Feb. 8 put Obama ahead of Clinton, but only by 4 percentage points, at or near the surveys' statistical margins of error. While that isn't much of a lead, Clinton had led by 9 points on Feb. 6-7, according to an American Research Group poll released Feb. 8, so the trend is clear.
What seems to have pushed Obama ahead in Wisconsin is not his more liberal reputation, Burden said, but "the energy coming off of the other states" where he's beaten Clinton in eight straight contests starting Feb. 9.
Obama also has some advantages in Wisconsin: his home state, Illinois, is next door. Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle backs him. And Obama's been campaigning there more vigorously than Clinton has. Last Tuesday, while awaiting results from the "Potomac Primary" of Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, Clinton went to Texas, but Obama went to Wisconsin.
"Where better to affirm our ideals than here in Wisconsin, where a century ago the progressive movement was born?" he told voters in Madison that night. "It was rooted in the principle that the voices of the people can speak louder than special interests, that citizens can be connected to their government and to one another, and that all of us share a common destiny, an American dream."
With Obama pulling ahead, Clinton is refocusing her attention on the state after concentrating most recently on Texas and Ohio. Former President Clinton campaigned there on Valentine's Day and the candidate herself was scheduled to be there from Saturday through Election Day.
"I think they want to prevent a complete blowout in Wisconsin," Burden said. "They don't want to say they're competing seriously because they're likely to lose Wisconsin. At the same time, they don't want to fall terribly behind in the delegate count, which is looking more and more important each day."
Mark Jefferson, the executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said he thought that Obama's surge in Wisconsin was being overestimated.
"I wouldn't underestimate the Clinton machine. I think too many people are at this point," he said. "Voters in both parties here are accustomed to throwing curve balls, and I think the Clinton team is more formidable than a lot of people want to give them credit for."
As for the Republican contest Tuesday between national front-runner John McCain and Mike Huckabee, Jefferson admitted that there isn't as much enthusiasm.
He said that Wisconsin Republicans were still coming to terms with their remaining choices. "Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson had a lot of support last year," he said.
"Now, with the field narrowed down to McCain and Huckabee, there's a lot of consternation, a lot of thinking about a couple candidates who till now hadn't had strong polling numbers here."
Come the general election, he said, "I think it's going to be a tight race no matter who the Democrats put up."