(CNN) - Unlike Republican Senate nominee Ron Johnson, the millionaire businessman looking to unseat Sen. Russell Feingold, Wisconsin gubernatorial hopeful Scott Walker doesn't have the luxury of running as an outsider at a time when veteran politicians are on the firing line.
Walker has been in politics for 17 years, first elected as a state representative in 1993 and then to the post of Milwaukee County Executive in 2002, a position he still holds. But Walker claims the same people who are "jazzed up" about Johnson are jazzed up about him.
"Because they say even though I've been in government, I am the guy who has proven he can take on the political machine," Walker told CNN in an interview at his campaign headquarters in Wauwatosa.
Walker - who leads the Democratic nominee, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, 53-42 among likely voters according to a CNN/Time/Opinion Research Corporation poll released last week - is trying to frame himself as a career reformer rather than a career politician, a fiscal crusader who holds office but isn't afraid to throw some elbows.
"When people ask me, 'How do you appeal to Tea Party folks?' I say: I was the original Tea Party in Wisconsin," Walker said. "Eight years ago we held recalls. We got rid of a county executive who had been in office almost since the time I was born."
Like many GOP candidates, Walker appears to benefiting from the sour economic climate and an ability to link Barrett to two Democrats, President Obama and Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, with approval ratings at all-time lows. Barrett is losing to Walker by 21 points among independent votes, according to the CNN poll.
"Tom Barrett has come out the political machine in Milwaukee," Walker said. "He is the political machine. He is the status quo."
Walker echoes the conservative message of outsider candidates running for office this year – to reduce the size of government and create jobs – but says he has a proven record of doing so in Milwaukee County, where he says he slashed debt without ever proposing a tax increase.
Barrett points out that he trails by just 3 points overall among registered voters and said his challenge will be to energize the Democratic base – the same voters President Obama will try to rally when he campaigns with Barrett in the college town of Madison on Tuesday.
"There is no question that Republicans were ready to vote in November of 2008, they were so angry that President Obama was elected that they are going to do everything they can do defeat him or any other Democrats for that matter," Barrett told CNN.
"The difference here, though, is that both of our candidates at the gubernatorial level, we've got records, and we're going to compare our record very, very closely with Scott Walker's record," he said. "And what we find is when that happens, people move in our direction."
Barrett is selling himself as a problem-solver who, as mayor, focused on economic development efforts and attracting jobs to the city.
Pledging to bring "adult supervision" to the governor's mansion, Barrett said his opponent has been running a campaign premised on gimmicks, namely the 68-page jobs plan Walker released this month printed in over-sized font so it would be a single page longer than Barrett's 67-page plan.
"This is the most serious time we've had economically in our country since the depression, and its like they're running for a high school class presidency," Barrett said. "I don't think people want that. I think they want maturity and real leadership."