(CNN) – Democrat Tom Barrett, who is trailing embattled Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in polls ahead of Wisconsin's June 5 recall election, sought to portray his challenger as a divisive "rock star" to the tea party in a debate Friday, claiming the incumbent Republican had torn apart the state in pursuit of national political ambitions.
Barrett, the Milwaukee mayor, is facing Walker in a recall election after Walker made the controversial decision in 2011 to cut most collective bargaining rights for state employees. Two polls released Thursday put Walker ahead of his Democratic challenger by single digits.
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In Friday's debate, Barrett said that move, which sparked massive protests at the state Capitol in Madison, amounted to a "civil war" declaration.
"This election is not a rematch or do-over, because we can't do-over the decision by Scott Walker to start a political civil war which resulted in this state losing more jobs than any other state in the country in 2011," Barrett said in his opening statement. "A decision that tore apart this state, and made it impossible in some instances for neighbors to talk to neighbors, for relatives to talk to relatives, and for co-workers to talk to co-workers. Because it was too bitter a fight."
Walker framed his decision as necessary to restore the state's fiscal well-being.
"If you look at the last year and a half, we've documented more than a billion dollars in savings because of our reforms," Walker said. "That led to the first time in 12 years that the property taxes on a median-valued home went down."
Walker and GOP allies in the Wisconsin state legislature voted in January 2011 to limit raises for public employees, except police and firefighters, to the rate of inflation. They also moved to bar unions from deducting dues from workers' paychecks.
That bill was signed into law in March, following the protests at the Capitol.
Unions argued that collective bargaining - a process of negotiations meant to regulate working conditions - has served to protect their wages and health care, as well as enforce workplace safety and serve as a means to arbitrate employee grievances.
Walker, along with other supporters of the measure, asserted union contracts constrain efforts to address Wisconsin's swelling deficit.
In Friday's debate, Walker said his reform effort took courage.
"What I've done is stand up and take on the powerful special interests," he said. "That's why they poured money in since last year. That's why they brought money and bodies into the state, because I did something that hadn't been done before."
Barrett, who ran against Walker in Wisconsin's 2010 gubernatorial election, said the Republican incumbent was using Wisconsin's financial woes as a springboard to national fame.
"He wants this state to be the prototype for the tea party nationally," Barrett said. "That's why he's such a rock star, they love him. The conservatives love him, the right wing loves him, because he's doing exactly what they want him to do. He's not doing what the people in Wisconsin want him to do, and he's pleasing these billionaires."
Walker acknowledged the national attention he's received following the Wisconsin protests, saying people were responding to his tough stance on debt.
"What you've seen is people from across the state, and yes from across the country, who say here's a governor who's willing to take on the powerful special interests and instead do something unique: put the power back into the hands of taxpayers," Walker said.