Miles Tooher, a 65-year-old whose patio furniture business is going under in the conservative Milwaukee suburb of West Allis, thinks Republican Mitt Romney could help turn the economy around if he could win the presidency.
But he’s skeptical that Paul Ryan, the young congressman from his own state who was named as Romney’s running mate, is helping even in Wisconsin. “I’m not sure that was the best choice,” Tooher said. “Ryan is a little more radical than Romney.”
Ryan hasn’t been able to turn the state for Romney. President Barack Obama leads in Wisconsin, a swing state where the race was dead even just a few weeks ago. That’s despite a struggling economy that still could make the state open to changing course.
Boarded-up shops stand in the center of downtown Kenosha, a city where the late George Romney, the candidate’s father, once oversaw a major auto plant. The city now struggles with 10 percent unemployment. It’s a scene found in other Wisconsin downtowns as well, including the faded center of Ryan’s hometown of Janesville, where the General Motors plant shut down in 2008 and recovery has been painfully slow.
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Sixty-one-year-old retiree Joyce Sorensen of Kenosha reflected on the race as she walked near a red lighthouse standing sentinel over the Great Lakes shipping that once helped make the region an economic powerhouse. She hasn’t decided whom to vote for, but she doesn’t blame Obama for the economy.
“Obama was handed something he had no control over,” Sorensen said, the fall wind whipping off Lake Michigan and cutting through her light jacket. “And nobody is working with him; Congress isn’t working with him.”
In Milwaukee, 40 miles north up the interstate, 28-year-old bartender Venessa Pena poured a Spotted Cow beer as Obama and Romney debated on the television behind her. Pena also hasn’t decided whom to vote for. But she shrugged off suggestions that the president had blown the economy.
“The mess of the economy that was created took eight years to create, and you can’t fix it in four years,” she said.
That’s a common sentiment in Wisconsin, said Charles Franklin, the director of the Marquette Law School poll. He said more people in Wisconsin told the pollsters they were worse off now than they were when Obama took office four years ago than those who said they were better off now.
“But when we ask who is more responsible for the current economic situation, 30 percent say Obama and 55 percent say George Bush,” he said. “The task for Romney in the last five weeks of the campaign will be to convince voters it really is Obama’s fault.”
Romney and his supporters are trying to do just. The pro-Romney “super PAC” Restore Our Future plans to spend $1.2 million on an ad in Wisconsin this week that hammers the president as creating a “new normal” of high unemployment and a bad economy. It’s just the latest such ad to hit the Badger State, but Romney and Ryan nevertheless have watched the race in Wisconsin go from essentially tied three weeks ago to trailing by an average of nearly 7 percentage points, according to RealClearPolitics.com.
Franklin attributed Obama’s surge to a post-Democratic convention bounce and missteps by Romney, including his disparaging remarks about the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay income taxes.
There are signs of hope for Romney. A survey that the Democratic polling firm Public Policy Polling released Saturday suggested that the president’s lead in Wisconsin had shrunk to just 2 percentage points in Wisconsin, a change the firm attributes to Romney’s performance in last week’s debate.
The state is a tough sell for Romney: No Republican presidential nominee has won it since 1984.
George W. Bush came close twice, and the Republicans have a tested organization in the state after Republican Gov. Scott Walker convincingly won a recall election this summer. There’s also Romney’s decision to make Wisconsin Congressman Ryan his vice-presidential pick.
Support for the Republican ticket did improve in August after Romney chose Ryan.
But Ryan’s statewide appeal is limited by the fact he represents just one-eighth of Wisconsin as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, as opposed to senators, who run statewide and are better known. Ryan also is seen as more polarizing now than he was at the time Romney picked him, Franklin said. About the same number of people in Wisconsin reported viewing Ryan in a negative light in the latest Marquette poll as those who look at him favorably.
“Let’s just remember these are presidential elections. In other campaigns when you’ve seen particularly strong or particularly weak vice-presidential picks, it’s still boiled down to the presidential nominee. It’s much more on Romney’s shoulders to carry the race in Wisconsin than it is on Ryan’s,” Franklin said.
Ryan or not, 58-year-old Brian Grebach of Milwaukee, who recently lost his job as a diesel mechanic after 19 years, thinks it’s time to give Romney a chance.
“Obama has been president going on four years,” he said. “That’s a long time, and nothing has really changed.”
Manufacturing largely drives Wisconsin’s economy. The state makes a wide range of things, from paper to plastics to surgical equipment. The auto industry has long been fleeing Wisconsin, and it doesn’t hold nearly the same kind of dominance as it does in Michigan and Ohio. Food processing is important, as is agriculture, which is suffering from the drought.
“It’s a really weak, slow recovery. There’s not been a whole lot of job growth in Wisconsin. Depending on which time periods you look at, we’ve been losing jobs,” said Steven Deller, an economist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “If you look at the 50 states, we’re not in the worst position, but we‘re not very far from being among the worst.”
Federal data shows the state creating jobs at a significantly lower rate than the rest of the country, although its unemployment rate is still lower than the national number.
The health of the Wisconsin economy has been hotly debated, with Gov. Walker touting job growth as he won the recall election, which was sparked by his move to strip public employee unions of collective bargaining rights. Walker now watches as his fellow Republicans talk about how bad Wisconsin’s economy is and point the finger at Obama.
It’s a state whose 10 electoral votes, while not a giant prize like Ohio’s or Florida’s, are among the most of the remaining battleground states. A Romney win would go a long way toward helping him chart a path to the presidency, and Ryan doesn’t want to lose his home state to Obama.
But Obama has passionate supporters in Wisconsin. The president tried to solidify his lead in the state last week with a rally at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that drew an estimated 30,000 people, among his largest crowds of the campaign. University police said another 6,000 had to be turned away from the packed lawn.
University of Wisconsin students such as Ursula Hymes started waiting in line at 6:30 a.m. for a chance to hear Obama speak nine hours later.
“He’ll win Wisconsin by a landslide,” she declared.