Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series about the race for governor in Wisconsin. Wednesday we will be featuring Mark Neumann, and Thursday we will be featuring Scott Walker.
It's the last day in July, and the temperature is a sweltering 85 degrees in central Wisconsin.
From the passenger seat of my car, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett turns up the air and repositions a few of the air vents to shoot more cool air his way.
It's my third and final day on the campaign trail with the Obama-endorsed Democratic contender for Wisconsin governor, and Barrett is happy for the brief break from his handlers and regular routine.
"This is kind of like a vacation," he says.
The 57-year-old Barrett and his wife, Kris, have four teenage children. Close to 6 feet 4 inches tall with thick, graying hair, he looks a bit like comedian Steve Martin. Like the comic, he has a tendency to crack jokes and laugh at his own expense.
One of his favorite conversation ice breakers is telling people how he's often told he doesn't "seem" like someone from Milwaukee.
"At first, I didn't know how to respond to that," Barrett says. "It's kind of like someone telling me I don't look as fat as I do on TV."
A career politician who has also served in the state Legislature and Congress, Barrett is the Democratic front-runner in the race. Campaigning across the state, he is often recognized by sight or at least by name, even in Republican-friendly enclaves such as Green Bay or Tomah. Regardless of the political lay of the land, he is straightforward about his progressive values that stand in stark contrast to his two rivals.
"They are leapfrogging over each other further and further to the right," Barrett says. "I'm starting to get concerned one of them is going to fall off the edge of the earth."
Before hitting the campaign trail July 29, Barrett attends a joint press conference hosted by his office and the Milwaukee Police Department in a violence-prone area of north-side Milwaukee. The news conference outside the Boys & Girls Club was called to announce this year's 12 percent drop in violent crime incidents across the city. But the good news is overshadowed by the shooting several nights before of a 12-year-old girl while she was outside playing. After giving a brief speech, Barrett points to a group of children playing on a swing set.
"That's what we need to see across the city," he says. "For me, it's that simple. During the summer, grandmas should be able to sit on their front porches and watch their grandkids play outside."
After the press conference, a staffer meets him at his city vehicle, pulls a stack of manila folders from the trunk and hands him a pen. Barrett's right hand is still unable to form a fist or correctly grasp a pen a year after the bones in his writing hand were crushed while attempting to stop a domestic dispute outside Wisconsin State Fair Park in West Allis.
After signing most of the documents, Barrett takes a few papers with him to review further. He grabs a duffle bag holding a mechanical device that stretches and strengthens his hand, and heads to a different car to begin campaigning. Barrett typically wears the device only in the car. The bandaged hand generates enough discussion on its own.
"This mayor is no cream puff," says a supporter at the Jackson County Fair two days later.
"You did the right thing," another supporter tells him in Monroe County.
"Must be good for a few sympathy votes," says another woman in Jackson County, attempting to offer a silver lining to the situation. "I'd rather have my hand," Barrett tells her with a smile.
Barrett's first official campaign stop of the day is at Monterey Mills, a fabric manufacturer in Janesville. Today the factory is in talks with BP about supplying the company with a product to help absorb the spilled oil in the Gulf.
Barrett's campaign picked the factory to highlight a business that is growing during the tough economic times, as well as to pitch the candidate's plan to attract, create and retain Wisconsin jobs to a working-class crowd.
The next day, at a candidate appearance in Green Bay sponsored by the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups, Barrett again stresses his first priority is job creation. When asked how he would protect government programs for the aging and disabled, he says he would hold the line but would not be able to expand programs in light of the state's $2.7 billion structural deficit.
"The first thing we have to realize ... is you cannot afford to have tax cuts for the people who are the best off in this state," Barrett tells the crowd in Green Bay, many of whom begin to cheer. "And that, to me, is one of the defining issues in this campaign."
The statement is a direct jab at Milwaukee County Executive and Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker. Walker is proposing to jump-start the economy by supporting a tax cut that would benefit the state's wealthiest 1 percent. According to the state Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the Walker tax cut would keep $1.8 billion out of state coffers.
"Personal-care workers, SeniorCare, Family Care, Medicaid and BadgerCare ... all those (state) programs would be far more difficult to fund if you go through with those tax cuts," Barrett says.
Unlike his opponents, Barrett touts his support of the federal health care reform bill. For those who call for its repeal, he says he has a few questions.
"Why do you want to take health insurance away from a sick 3-year-old who may now, for the first time, be able to have health insurance?" Barrett asks. "Or why do you want to take health insurance away from a 23-year-old woman who has diabetes but wants to go to college?" Under the reform bill, children with pre-existing conditions can no longer be denied insurance, and single adults ages 22 to 26 can remain on their parents' insurance plan.
When his 35-minute speech and question-answer session is complete, Barrett does a quick session with reporters. His communications director, Phil Walzak, stands nearby, nervously eying his watch.
"I'm a slave to the schedule," Walzak says.
Not long after, Walzak cuts off questions from the press. The campaign is often running behind schedule, and today is no exception. Barrett shows up to a stop at the Marathon County Courthouse in Wausau about 20 minutes late.
The stop is brief, followed by an editorial meeting with the Wausau Daily Herald. The day of campaigning ends with a stop at a fair in Eau Claire.
The weekend fair stops are just beginning, though. On Saturday, Barrett attends the Jackson County Fair in Black River Falls, the Monroe County Fair in Tomah and Hub City Days in Marshfield.
At the first stop in Jackson County, the smell of bacon and eggs sticks with him after he walks past a vendor selling breakfast.
"I want to go back for some of that," he says. "All I had this morning was a doughnut."
Not long after, he doubles back and buys the "best of show." He eats the scrambled eggs, bacon, sausages, pancakes and toast while being interviewed by a local reporter.
Then he connects with the Jackson County sheriff for a tour of the rest of the event.
"It's important to have locals showing you around," he says. "It gives you more credibility."
At the next stop in Tomah, Barrett's progressive leanings gain him points with two women who are waiting for him to arrive.
"He's not a pro-lifer. That speaks to me," says Melisa Thideman , 49, of Tomah.
Friends with Barrett on Facebook, she says it's "tough being of the Democratic persuasion up here."
"There were more Republicans in Tomah than at the first fair (in Black River Falls)," Barrett agrees while in the car on the way to Marshfield. "But I'm pleased with the response."
At his third stop of the day, with the afternoon sun now beating down on him, Barrett buys another Diet Coke and makes his way to the liveliest portion of the event - the beer garden.
Travis Haupt, a self-defense instructor at UW-Marshfield/Wood County, is checking ID's at the garden's entrance. Barrett takes the opportunity to strike up a conversation.
Tattooed and wearing nothing but a leather vest and jeans, Haupt tells Barrett he has guts for getting involved in the domestic dispute in West Allis.
"I give him credit for getting up in that guy's face," Haupt says after Barrett moves inside the event. "But he didn't give me a clear answer on guns, and I'm all about concealed carry."
After about 30 minutes of mingling with the crowd - most of whom are well on their way to a good beer buzz - Walzak suggests Barrett head back to the small town's main street, where people are more likely to remember his message.
Winding up seven straight hours of shaking hands and talking politics, Barrett seems a bit tired but not beat. If anything, the longer he goes, the more energy he seems to pick up from supporters. He's a people person, and it shows on the campaign trail.
"Not everybody likes it, but I like campaigning," he says. "Each trip out feels like we're gaining recognition. That will continue to grow the closer we get to November."
As to which Republican he'd rather face in the general election, Barrett says he's neutral.
"I've said I'm a gentleman. I will hold their coats while they fight it out with each other," he says with a grin.
On Sept. 14, he'll have an answer.