MILWAUKEE — Former President Bill Clinton urged Wisconsin Democrats to vote against Gov. Scott Walker in Tuesday's recall election, saying the Republican has governed without compromise or honest negotiation.
Clinton rallied hundreds of voters Friday in Milwaukee, a Democratic stronghold and home of Walker's challenger, Democratic Mayor Tom Barrett. The former president was the latest in a string of high-profile Democrats who have campaigned on Barrett's behalf in recent days.
Clinton told the crowd at a downtown riverfront park that the states recovering from the economic downturn are those in which members of both parties are working together.
"They are involved in creative cooperation, not constant conflict," he said, later adding, "Cooperation works. Constant conflict is a dead-bang loser."
Clinton's comments were a clear dig at Walker after the state divided last year over the governor's push to effectively end collective bargaining for most public workers. Walker and Republican leaders rammed his proposal through the state Legislature despite weeks of protests at the state Capitol and Senate Democrats fleeing to Illinois in an ultimately futile effort to block a vote.
That's no way to govern, Clinton said. Real leaders get stakeholders together, listen to their concerns, treat them with respect and make sure everyone moves forward together, he said.
"You get out of a ditch when people stand on each others' shoulders and somebody gets to the top and then reaches down and pulls everybody else up," Clinton said.
The recall election was spurred by anger over the collective bargaining law. Local election clerks who track absentee voting through a statewide computer system had issued at least 182,000 absentee ballots by midday Friday, foreshadowing what is expected to be heavy turnout next week.
Almost 231,000 absentee ballots were cast during the 2010 gubernatorial race, which saw Walker beat Barrett by about 125,000 votes. However, only a third of Wisconsin clerks use the tracking system, which means the actual number of ballots issued so far in the recall is likely much, much higher. Thursday was the last day for most people to request an absentee ballot by mail, and Friday was the final day for absentee voting at clerk's offices.
Walker campaigned Friday with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who has called herself a "union buster" and considers her state's low union membership rate an economic development tool.
At a printing plant in Sussex, about 20 miles west of Milwaukee, Haley told workers the Wisconsin race was being watched by governors nationwide and called on voters to reward what she described as Walker's courage.
"If you have his back ... you will show governors like me that when we fight for you, you will have our backs," Haley said. "And that helps every governor."
Clinton, the biggest Democratic name to visit Wisconsin in the recall, cautioned that Republicans would interpret a Walker win as authorization to continue what he called a divide-and-conquer strategy, and that they'd feel empowered to break unions and continue attacking the middle class.
"Ordinarily I'm against recall elections," Clinton said, "... but sometimes it is the only way to avoid a disastrous course."
Clinton's visit is a nod to the importance of turnout in Milwaukee, where Barrett must do well in order to win the state.
While President Barack Obama has kept his distance from the union fight as his own re-election nears this fall, other Democratic leaders swooped in this week to support Barrett and take jabs at Walker.
"We don't want to wake up after this election and say, 'If only,'" Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley told volunteers in Madison on Thursday. "Now is the time to turn on the afterburners."
The recall election has been unlike anything seen before in Wisconsin, with at least $62 million spent by the candidates and outside groups so far, based on a tally released Thursday by the government watchdog group the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
Walker has been leading in polls released by the Marquette University Law School during the past two weeks. One released Wednesday showed him with a 7-point edge, but that was within the margin of error of 4.1 percentage points either way.
With few undecided voters, most campaign experts say the key to victory for both candidates will be getting supporters to the polls.
Associated Press writers Scott Bauer and Todd Richmond contributed to this report.