MILWAUKEE - Scott Walker's fight for his political life begins at sunrise.
At his first stop this morning, a downtown breakfast banquet honoring the city's top workplaces, the first-term governor delivers a brief pep talk on the future of his state. Before parting, he issues a charge to the audience of several hundred: "Don't back down. Don't back off the good that you've done."
With that, he dashes to his next campaign stop, where he'll pitch more hope while defending his tumultuous 18-month run as Wisconsin's chief executive.
In a state deeply divided over his conservative politics and polarizing leadership, Walker isn't backing down.
As Wisconsin's historic June 5 gubernatorial recall election closes in, the embattled Republican is working long days crisscrossing his state, rallying support in a final push to avoid the humiliation of becoming only the third governor in U.S. history to be removed from office mid-term.
Even as partisan anger across the state escalates, the 44-year-old drives on, knowing the outcome will not only determine his political fate and the direction of his state, but possibly, serve as a harbinger for national elections this November.
"We know what's at stake," Walker told supporters at a recent rally in La Crosse. "And we've got a great story to tell."
A deep divide
The recall, after months of protest, petition drives and selecting an opponent, is a rematch of the 2010 election that Walker won with 1.12 million votes -- about 125,000 more than his challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
It was sparked by Walker's bold and divisive move just weeks in office to balance the state's budget by curbing collective bargaining rights for most public employees. Organized labor and its supporters immediately descended on the Capitol in Madison and demonstrated en masse.
By January, Walker's opponents had gathered signatures of more than 900,000 registered voters -- nearly as many as had voted for Barrett -- demanding a recall election.
Even now, a year after workers stormed the Capitol, the divide seems as wide and as deep as ever. Protesters still march daily, carrying signs berating Walker and calling for his removal.
As the governor, flanked by state troopers, walked from his Capitol office to a law enforcement memorial ceremony last week, a voice boomed from the rotunda: "Two, four, six, eight! Scott Walker sucks!" Part of the refrain was repeated minutes later as Walker spoke outside.
To Democrats and union advocates, Walker is an unyielding frontman for a conservative national movement pushing a union-busting agenda.
"He sees himself in a light where he wants to be the darling of the Tea Party," said Bart Munger, 51, a maintenance mechanic from Milton and daily Capitol protester. "And he's being encouraged hand over foot."
But Walker's conservative base sees a profile in courage, a politician gutsy enough to take on public unions on behalf of taxpayers.
"He did what he said he was going to do," said Pam Johnson, 49, a factory worker and union member who embraced Walker as he stepped from his SUV in La Crosse. "And who can argue with that?"
Both sides on the attack
Minutes after leaving the banquet in Milwaukee, Walker and his handlers are on the road to Mequon, where he'll tour a small chemical company before heading to Madison.
Like most days, this one started at 6 a.m. with biking, weightlifting and a scan of the daily papers at his home in Wauwatosa, just west of Milwaukee. By 7, Walker is out the door, headed to meetings or campaign stops that will last well into the night.
He usually carries two Blackberries and an iPad, simultaneously working the phones and the Internet. On this morning Barrett and Democratic leaders are on the attack, questioning state job numbers. They accuse Walker of "concocting" numbers days before the election to make it appear Wisconsin is faring better than it is.
Walker, who promised to create 250,000 jobs in his first term, counters at every stop with the same message: His budget reforms are working. Taxpayers are saving money. Unemployment has dropped. Jobs are steadily returning.
"When times are tough, you've got to take care of your priorities, and that's what we've done," he says in Mequon, defending the collective bargaining reforms that helped erase a $3.6 billion budget deficit. He unleashes his own attacks on Barrett, bashing him for failed leadership and Milwaukee's economic woes.
When pressed in Green Bay on whether he, as chief executive and the former Milwaukee County executive until he ran for governor, takes some responsibility for Milwaukee's plight, he answers "no." But, he adds, the state is willing to invest in the city.
"You can't have a healthy Wisconsin if you don't have a healthy Milwaukee," he says.
At several stops, Barrett supporters question Walker setting up a legal defense fund in an ongoing investigation of his staff while Milwaukee County executive. Several aides, including his chief of staff, have been targeted in the probe, which includes charges of embezzlement and performing campaign duties on government time.
When questioned about the issue in La Crosse, Walker, a preacher's son and former Eagle Scout, quickly dismissed it.
"I've had a strong ethical standard for integrity," he said. "The reason the mayor is making comments like that is because he's desperate."
Drive the country roads of America's Dairyland and the name "Walker" is plastered everywhere -- on hay wagons, billboards, and car bumpers.
His voice and his face are a constant on statewide radio and TV, too.
While Barrett has had only weeks to compete head to head, Walker has had months to stock his war chest.
Even before the May 8 primary, Walker had spent $21 million of $25 million raised for the recall fight. Both sums shattered records he set in the 2010 gubernatorial campaign. Under Wisconsin law, the target of a recall can raise unlimited sums up to the point when the election is set.
Most of the money has come from corporations, wealthy individuals and other conservative organizations outside Wisconsin with a stake in the November national elections.
"A lot of the things they've done in Wisconsin are a part of the national Republican agenda," said Joe Heim, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He cited union battles, voter ID, expanding gun rights. "He's the spearhead of a national conservative movement and national agenda that, if successful, will essentially transform politics in many states."
Walker admits to regrets. If he could go back, he'd spend more time spelling out his budget reforms. But, he adds, "I fixed things and talked about it. Most politicians do it the other way -- they talk about it, but they don't fix things."
Recent polls show him leading Barrett by 3 to 6 percentage points. Early last week, he won the endorsement of the state's largest newspaper -- the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Mike McCabe, director of the Wisconsin Dem-ocracy Campaign, which tracks election spending, says Walker should be "real concerned" that the millions he has spent haven't delivered "more of a bump" in the polls.
But Heim says the ad blitz likely has energized Walker's base when it matters most.
"By brute force it seems he's pulling ahead," Heim said. "He's going full bore to win this recall."
Richard Meryhew 612-673-4425