Milwaukee, Wisconsin (CNN) - His campaign thought Wisconsin's 10 electoral votes were in the bag long ago, but President Barack Obama's trip here Saturday is the latest indicator that both sides believe the Badger State has become a toss-up.
The president touches down in the state Saturday for the first time in more than 200 days, set to attend two fund-raisers that will net his campaign more than $600,000 as well as an evening rally at a large amphitheater on the banks of Lake Michigan.
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“It is great to be back in Milwaukee,” Obama said to an enthusiastic crowd at the evening rally, taking the stage 30 minutes early as rain clouds moved in above. “I don’t see a lot of victims here today,” he added later, “I see a lot of hardworking Wisconsinites.”
While Obama carried the state by a commanding 14 points in 2008 and has been up in the polls here for most of the year, the Romney campaign long ago eyed Wisconsin as a potential obstacle for the president in his re-election effort. Romney officials opened more than 20 field offices throughout the state and have injected hundreds of thousands in advertising dollars in recent weeks.
Should Obama lose the state's 10 electoral votes, the Romney campaign's now-narrow path to victory suddenly gets some much-needed breathing room.
Moreover, Republican officials point out, much has changed in Wisconsin since 2008. After the manufacturing-heavy economy was hit particularly hard by the recession, Wisconsinites overwhelmingly elected conservative Scott Walker as governor in 2010.
Walker, who campaigned heavily on a plank of significant spending cuts, faced a recall election a year later largely fueled by unions and the state Democratic Party. But Obama notably kept his distance from the recall effort, wary that a Walker win would be portrayed as an Obama loss if the president injected his name into the battle.
Walker ultimately survived the recall - a result that some Wisconsin Democrats grumbled could have gone the other way if the president had flexed his muscle. Now, Republicans are hoping lingering hard feelings among local Democrats could hinder Obama's prospects in the state.
As for the Obama campaign, aides say they have long prepared for a hard fight, despite the fact that the president has not visited the state since February and has only recently gone up on the airwaves with television ads.
"We've always thought Wisconsin would be harder for us this year than it was four years ago," said Jen Psaki, a campaign spokeswoman.
Meanwhile, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina attributed the stronger-than-expected Romney performance here to a better ground game than that executed by the McCain campaign four years ago.
“They are stronger than McCain was in '08, no question, on the ground,” he told reporters Saturday. “But we continue to have a strategic advantage.”
Still, the president enjoyed a double-digit lead in the state for much of the year, even as the Romney campaign was forcefully ramping up its effort.
Then came the surprising pick of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's running mate. What was once a double-digit lead dwindled to low single digits almost overnight.
While Obama maintains a small but significant lead here (CNN's average of recent polls show him with a 9-point advantage), Republicans are quick to point out his long absence from the state.
"Obama is headed to Milwaukee after ignoring the state for 220 days," said Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski. "Some things have changed since he's been gone, including a massive GOP ground game making over a million voter contacts."
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