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Inside Politics
The Morning Grind / DayAhead

Badger State, battleground?

By John Mercurio
CNN Political Unit

Watching Wisconsin: Howard Dean vows a comeback there, while John Kerry's poll numbers ride high.
Watching Wisconsin: Howard Dean vows a comeback there, while John Kerry's poll numbers ride high.

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• The Candidates: Bush | Kerry
Morning Grind

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Much like you, we're nostalgic for the heady days of January, when this race was still a race, before the Kerry Comeback became the Kerry Coronation. So, like you, we look forward to the Showdown in Sheboygan, what Howard Dean vows will be the mother of all comebacks in Wisconsin.

The battle in the Badger State could, sadly, be a bust. John Kerry leads Dean by anywhere from 30 to 3,000 points in the latest polls and could head into next Tuesday with a 12-2 wind at his back.

Ironically, Dean's relying on strong showings today by John Edwards and Wesley Clark in Virginia and Tennessee, to help soften up Kerry and force a collective pause for reconsideration. That is, after all, what preceded Dean's downfall in Des Moines.

Undaunted, we cast our gaze today upon Wisconsin, whose presidential primaries have served up high drama and sparked comeback dreams for as long as David Broder has been covering them.

Wisconsin landscape

A rough survey of the landscape reveals that Dean is well positioned there, perhaps better so than in any state since New Hampshire.

Kerry, who hasn't been in Wisconsin since he attended the state party convention last June, won't step foot in the state until Friday, when he holds a town hall meeting on jobs with Gov. Jim Doyle. (A spokesman said Doyle does not plan to endorse anyone before next Tuesday).

Dean, who has traveled there more often than he has to any state except New Hampshire and Iowa, has been there non-stop since Sunday night. Wearing a blue lapel pin in the form of the map of Wisconsin, he famously arrived there last Thursday after abruptly canceling events in Michigan, where aides had slashed the price of Dean campaign buttons at his final event to $1 from three for $5. He'll spend part of every day there until next Tuesday, flying home to Burlington only to attend his son's hockey games Wednesday and Saturday evenings.

In sheer numbers, Dean's staff has an edge: Kerry's campaign has expanded from just two to 50 people in the past week, while Dean has had about 50 since early January. He now has around 80 folks on the ground and hopes to have more than 100 people on his payroll by this weekend. Kerry has six HQs around the state, five of which opened this week; Dean has had eight offices for several weeks. (So, that's where his $40 million went).

Notably, however, it's Clark and Edwards who spent by far the most money on TV ads in Wisconsin last week. (Dean, of course, spent nothing anywhere from New Hampshire through yesterday, when he went up with a 60-second bio spot in all eight Wisconsin media markets; another ad goes up today, also in all eight markets). Clark spent $50,000 on ads from February 1 to 7. Edwards spent $43,000. Kerry, just $16,000.

A changed world

The world has changed in Wisconsin since Iowa. Kerry aides had trouble getting their calls returned in December, when a Journal-Sentinel poll showed Dean with a 25-point lead over the '04 Dem pack.

"We weren't getting any oxygen," George Twigg, the senator's state director, told the Grind.

Indeed, Twigg openly concedes that the senator might not be doing as well if the primary calendar wasn't so front-loaded and voters had a chance to better size him up. "It's been a pretty graphic reflection of how much these nomination races are driven by momentum," Twigg said.

Dean's Wisconsin press secretary, Mike Spahn, said their uphill campaign boiled down to a dare, issued to Wisconsin's traditionally independent voters: You're not going to let the rest of the country tell you what to do, are you?

Are you .... ?

"This state doesn't take its cues from pundits or previous results. The voters don't really know that they're supposed to just go along with what happened in the earlier states," said Spahn, who notably worked in Ted Kennedy's press shop under Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill and spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter.

Following Feingold?

"Look at Russ Feingold's election in 1992. He was another so-called maverick who rose beyond the pollsters and the pundits. He worked hard to get his message out and his message resonated," Spahn added. "Governor Dean has a lot of respect for what he's been able to do."

Notice the Feingold reference, and get used to it. The senator's name will be part of most every stump speech Dean makes between now and next Tuesday, as Dean tries to fashion his political journey after the senator's come-from-behind victory 12 years ago.

But Feingold, who faces an election of his own this fall, told CNN yesterday that it's "unlikely" he'll issue an endorsement in the presidential primary. A spokesman said Doyle is also unlikely to endorse anyone before Tuesday. Same for Reps. Tammy Baldwin of Madison and Jerry Kleczka of Milwaukee.

Sources said two Democrats who may weigh in this week on Kerry's behalf are congressmen David Obey, who had endorsed Dick Gephardt, and Ron Kind, who had been backing Joe Lieberman before his downfall in Delaware.

If Kerry does clobber Dean next week and the '04 Dem race unofficially ends (Dean says he'll keep running, but then so do Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton), Terry McAuliffe will have realized his dream of presiding over the shortest primary campaign in at least 20 years.

Calling the race

Take a look at these numbers, compiled by CNN's political research director, Robert Yoon, who looked at when the media declared the race over and when the nominee officially garnered enough delegates to declare victory. In every case, Democrat and Republican, it was never before March 5.

Democratic end dates:

• 2000  Media: March 7. Official: March 14.

• 1992 Media: April 7. Official: June 2.

• 1988 Media: April 19. Official: June 7.

• 1984 Media: June 6. Official: June 6.

Republican end dates:

• 2000 Media: March 7. Official: March 14.

• 1996 Media: March 5 Official: March 26.

• 1992 Media: March 10. Official: May 5.

• 1988 Media: March 8. Official: April 26.

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