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Wisconsin's Primary To Pick Gov. Walker's Challenger

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Shortly after he took office last winter, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and fellow Republicans in the Legislature enraged Democrats and public employee unions by cutting collective bargaining rights, and Wisconsin has been on fire politically ever since. A protest movement forced a recall election, scheduled for June 5, and now, voters in Tuesday's Democratic gubernatorial primary will select Walker's challenger.

At Franks Diner in downtown Kenosha, Wis., the prices are low, the food is piled high, and the motto is "be nice or leave." So bartender Amber Rodriguez, from nearby Racine, tries to put this nicely: When it comes to working people, she says, Gov. Walker hasn't been very nice.

"It doesn't really seem like he's trying to do anything to help anybody," she says. "He seems like he's going more toward bigger business and trying to give them whatever they want."

For many, it doesn't seem to matter much who wins the Democratic primary, as long as it's someone who can beat Walker.

Leading Challengers: Barrett And Falk

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett spent lunchtime Monday shaking hands and chatting with voters at Franks and two other crowded Kenosha diners. He was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2010 and narrowly lost to Walker. Now, just 18 months later, he wants a second chance.

He says he is not focusing at all on his primary opponents.

"I'm just focusing on Scott Walker, that's who I'm focusing on," Barrett says. "And I think the state wants someone who can restore trust to government, someone who can start healing these divisions in this civil war Scott Walker started, someone who's going to focus on jobs here in Wisconsin instead of traveling around the country giving fundraising speeches."

But before he can get his rematch, Barrett must defeat a formidable primary opponent — former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk.

Falk is campaigning in Mayor Barrett's backyard, on Milwaukee's north side, with public employees whose unions helped gather the nearly one million petition signatures that made this recall election happen.

Falk says her campaign has something Barrett's doesn't: "My campaign has the support of this big tent, this unprecedented coalition of groups, such as labor groups, behind me, environmental groups, women's groups, community organizing groups. All those organizations have endorsed my campaign, and that's what it takes to beat a governor who's got $25 million."

'Like The Opening Act At A Rock Concert'

Falk, Barrett and two other Democrats on the ballot have all vowed to unite behind the winner of Tuesday's primary. And that makes this preliminary election just that.

"This is kind of like the opening act at a rock concert," says Mordecai Lee, a professor of governmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. "The electorate almost doesn't care who the Democratic nominee is. The electorate has taken sides. And people in Wisconsin, whether they're for Gov. Walker or against Gov. Walker, are very hyped up; they're very energized."

Lee says that means after Tuesday's warm-up vote, the "be nice" phase of this campaign will give way to a long month of intense, angry attack ads leading up to the main show June 5.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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