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Gov. Scott Walker speaks in La Crosse in February as part of his "Turning Around Wisconsin" tour, a post-State of the State trek meant to allow him to tout the accomplishments of his first year in office. Walker, who faces a potential recall election in the coming months, told the employees of Brennan Marine that "we are turning things around."

PETER THOMSON — La Crosse Tribune

The employees of Brennan Marine of La Crosse were treated last week to a preview of what will likely become Gov. Scott Walker's 2012 recall platform.

Put simply: My changes are working.

The governor traveled to the growing marine transportation company Wednesday as a part of his "Turning Around Wisconsin" tour, a post-State of the State trek meant to remind people why they elected him in the first place. 

Saturday marks one year since Walker introduced legislation so controversial it divided the state, spurred the largest protests in Wisconsin history and triggered a series of recall elections — likely including his own.

The Government Accountability Board is in the process of validating 1 million Walker recall signatures turned in last month. Unless it deems more than 450,000 of them fraudulent, the governor will find himself in the fight of his political life.

To win, Walker will have to walk a political tightrope, reminding people of his accomplishments while avoiding some of the more troubling aspects of his first year in office.

He will tout closing a $3.6 billion shortfall in the state budget, adding more than $1.2 billion to health programs such as BadgerCare and FamilyCare and keeping property taxes stable.

He will downplay, however, the loss of 35,000 Wisconsin jobs the past six months, more than $1 billion in education cuts and a spiraling John Doe investigation that keeps getting closer to him.

"(Walker's recall message) will be a lot of the same things we've heard before," said Charles Franklin, Marquette University Law School political scientist. "It's just this time around, it will be tougher for him to avoid some very uncomfortable questions." 

Republican hero

In 2010, Walker had a relatively easy path to office, winning by comfortable margins in the Republican primary and general election. He promised to help bring 250,000 jobs to the state by 2015, fix the state budget and bring economic vibrancy to Wisconsin. 

In short order, the new governor rejected $810 million in federal money for a Madison-to-Milwaukee passenger rail line, pushed through historic curbs on collective bargaining, passed a series of tax cuts meant to encourage job growth and pushed through an austere state budget.

His supporters say those moves, which made him a national hero to conservatives, will be the reasons Walker wins a recall election.

"All the governor has to say is, 'We were running a structural deficit and now we are not,'" said Chris Kliesmet, director of the conservative-leaning Citizens for Responsible Government. "We are in better shape than we were, and people know the governor is the reason why." 

But what made him a Republican darling also made him an enemy to most Democrats, and many independents. They see Walker as an ideologue who cares only about winning a cultural war against organized labor and not about who gets hurt in the process.

This division among voters is so entrenched that most political experts assume the governor will spend little time during the recall courting independent voters.

A Marquette Law School poll last month found that only about 4 percent of voters in Wisconsin were undecided on Walker's job performance. That ties Walker with New Jersey's Chris Christie for the lowest such number for a governor in the country. For comparison, Florida's Republican Gov. Rick Scott is unpopular in that state, but according to the latest poll numbers, more than 15 percent are undecided about his job performance.

"I think what we will see (from Walker) in this recall is a sort of Karl Rove strategy: run toward your base and get the vote out," said Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha. 

Nagging questions

While that approach may be a sound one, this time around Walker will have to navigate two very tricky issues: the ongoing John Doe investigation and struggling job numbers.

Last month Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm charged two former Walker aides with conducting illegal campaign work while being paid by taxpayers to work in the county executive's office. So far, six people have been charged in the investigation, including two of Walker's former deputy chiefs of staff.

But Joe Heim, a UW-La Crosse political scientist, said the controversy has not yet moved the needle for most voters. The day the latest charges were announced, only two of the state's 15 major daily newspapers carried the story on their front pages. Heim said that will change if Walker is ever linked directly to any of the allegations.

"If it ever actually touches him, it changes everything," he said.

But according to Mark Graul, longtime Republican operative and head of the consulting firm Arena Strategies, "Regular people don't care about the John Doe; they care about the economy."

Graul, who has managed several Republican campaigns, said he expects the governor to run on job growth, holding the line on taxes and fiscal responsibility.

"That's what matters to people right now," he said.

It's a theme the governor has tried to hammer home recently. During his State of the State address last month, Walker repeatedly mentioned the 150,000 jobs lost in the three years before he took office.

And this week in La Crosse, he again returned to the fact that the state has more jobs now than it did a year ago. "We are turning things around," he assured the Brennan employees.

But the governor doesn't make it a habit to mention the state's recent downturn in jobs numbers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Wisconsin is the only state in the country to have lost jobs for the past six months straight. The state has lost more than 35,000 jobs since Walker passed his $66 billion budget in June. 

Making matters worse, the drop-off has occurred just as the nation's job market seems to be rebounding. According to figures released Friday, the country gained 243,000 jobs in January, the second straight month of better-than-expected gains. 

Heim said the governor has to hope the recent downturn in jobs changes soon. Otherwise Walker will look like he is grasping at straws.

"If the job numbers continue to drop, it will become a really bad issue for him," he said.