Saying the Republican Party couldn't afford to take its eyes off its ultimate target -- Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle -- Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker dropped out of the GOP race for governor Friday.
Walker's exit left the race between Doyle and U.S. Rep. Mark Green, R-Green Bay, months before voters were to choose a Republican nominee in the September primary.
That clearly energized Republicans, many of whom weren't looking forward to a bruising primary fight before heading into the November general election.
"I'm not going to lie to you. Scott's a great guy and he was a great candidate and will continue to be part of the team," said Rick Wiley, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin.
"But when you have such a late primary and you have a candidate coming out of that primary essentially broke and going up against $6 (million) or $7 million of Doyle's money ... it's a daunting task."
Walker, 38, acknowledged that his campaign had failed to hit its fundraising goals. In the last six months of 2005, Walker's campaign raised just $617,258.
While Green raised slightly more -- $712,562 -- he had amassed a much larger war chest, close to $2.7 million, about half of which he had converted from his old congressional campaign.
In the same period, Doyle had raised $1.16 million, with $4.2 million on hand.
"Looking at the numbers this week, it became clear to me that our fundraising totals would only allow us to run a campaign in a fraction of the 72 counties in this state," Walker said in a press release. "In addition, our resources would be so limited that most of it would likely be spent on ads attacking our Republican opponent.
"A campaign that does not focus on Doyle before the primary will almost certainly ensure his re-election. To me, that outcome is unacceptable."
Doyle's campaign insisted nothing had changed with Walker's announcement.
But the suddenly tighter race will certainly force the governor to spend money far sooner than he had planned, since Green will no longer be fighting with Walker for a share of the Republican base and will instead be competing with Doyle for independent voters.
"It's clear that the Republican Party made the choice for voters ... and it's too bad that they're taking it out of the voters' hands," campaign spokeswoman Melanie Fonder said. "The governor is going to keep doing what he's been doing" in talking about his record and his plans to help middle-class voters.
A less-restrained Democratic Party Chairman Joe Wineke blasted Green as an extremist and a "rubber stamp for the failed policies of President Bush."
He singled out Green's support for budgets that have blown the federal surplus, support for a Medicare drug package Wineke called a boondoggle to benefit drug companies and his vote against a bill to increase federal money for stem-cell research.
Testimony in former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen's misconduct trial last month also implicated top aides to Green's campaign and congressional office in possible illicit campaign activity years ago, when Green was himself in leadership in the Assembly.
Green has said he knew nothing about state staffers doing campaign work on state time or with state resources during his six years in the Assembly.
"The good news for Wisconsin voters is that Scott Walker is out of the race," Wineke said. "The bad news is that extreme Mark Green is still in it."
Wineke noted that Walker's announcement came one day after national GOP Chairman Ken Mehlman attended a political fundraiser in Madison at which he called Doyle the "most vulnerable" incumbent governor in the country.
But Wiley, who said he learned of the announcement just 90 minutes before Walker made it Friday, said Mehlman hadn't spoken with Walker about the race and that neither he nor the state party had urged Walker to quit.
Walker, of Wauwatosa, spent nine years in the Assembly before winning a special election in 2002 to become Milwaukee County executive, an office traditionally held by Democrats. The youngest person elected to that office, Walker was swept to power as part of a general housecleaning following a pension scandal.
In his statement, Walker was generous toward his former Republican rival, with whom he served in the state Assembly, and offered him his support and endorsement.
"In the end, I love this state too much to see Jim Doyle elected to another term," Walker said.
Green issued his own statement praising Walker as a "committed and principled public leader" who put the needs of Wisconsin taxpayers first.
"Our minor differences have never overshadowed our shared belief that Jim Doyle has spent too much, taxed too much and is too out of step with our Wisconsin values," Green said.
Wiley laughed off suggestions that former GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson would jump in the breach. Thompson, a longtime Doyle enemy, has refused to quash speculation he might run again. He didn't return a message seeking comment Friday.