MADISON, Wis. - Gov. Scott Walker and his Democratic challenger, Tom Barrett, repeatedly sparred over collective bargaining rights, Wisconsin's economy and an ongoing criminal investigation into Walker's former aides during a contentious debate Thursday, their last matchup before Tuesday's recall election.
Walker, in office just 17 months and the third governor in U.S. history to face a recall election, defended his record and said the election is about "whether we want politicians to act on tough decisions."
Walker stormed into office, using a Republican majority in the Legislature to pass a law that effectively ended collective bargaining rights for most public workers. That sparked the recall movement, in which more than 900,000 signatures were gathered on petitions to trigger Tuesday's election.
Barrett, who lost to Walker in 2010 by 5 points, said Walker's policies are "working for the wealthiest people in the state but they're not working for the middle class." He said Walker, who has traveled nationwide raising $31 million since he took office, wants to make Wisconsin the "tea party capital of the country."
Polls show a tight race, with Walker holding a narrow lead within the margin of error of three publicly released polls within the past two weeks. Walker is vying to become the first governor to win a recall election.
One of the liveliest exchanges during the debate at the Marquette University Law School came when Walker and Barrett, seated next to each other at a round table fielding questions from moderator and veteran journalist Mike Gousha, discussed collective bargaining rights.
Walker defended his going after bargaining rights of most public workers just a month into office, saying it would be a mistake to reopen that debate as Barrett wants to do by calling a special legislative session to undo the changes.
Gousha asked Walker why, in a video recently made public that taken just before he introduced his plan in January 2011, he described his plan as a "divide and conquer" strategy against the unions.
Walker said he was talking about standing up to powerful special interests.
"We drew a line in the sand and said we're going to put the power back in the hands of taxpayers," Walker said.
Barrett, who repeatedly called Walker by his first name, said he was really signaling his support for turning Wisconsin into a right-to-work state.
"You wanted to pit people against each other because that's the way you operate," Barrett said.
Walker refused to say whether he would veto a right-to-work bill, saying he would ensure it never passes the Legislature.
"Mark my words, he'll sign it," Barrett said. "He would have a fall from grace with the far right if he would say he's going to veto that."
Barrett cast the recall as a question of trust, saying Walker has betrayed the people of the state.
Walker said he's shown courage in taking on tough challenges and that's what voters want.
While the collective bargaining fight triggered the recall, Walker has been attacked on numerous other issues during the truncated campaign, including his record on job creation.
Walker two weeks ago issued employment data that showed about 23,300 jobs were created in 2011, a dramatic positive swing from previously reported numbers showing a 33,900 drop, which was worst in the nation.
Walker made the unusual move of releasing the numbers before they had been reviewed by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This week, his Department of Workforce Development said the numbers had been verified by the BLS and the state would post them Friday on its website.
"They reviewed and verified the numbers," Walker said to Barrett. "I know this undermines your ads of the past two months, but the facts are the facts."
Barrett said even if Walker's numbers are to be believed, the state's job creation numbers don't measure up to nearby states. Walker promised in 2010 to create 250,000 jobs in his first term and he's far from being on pace to deliver on that.
Another testy moment in the debate came during discussion of Walker's involvement with the ongoing criminal investigation focused on aides and associates of his during his time as Milwaukee County executive, a position he held for eight years.
The investigation has already led to charges against six people who worked for or were associated with Walker's county executive office, including two charged with embezzling more than $60,000 from veterans and their families.
Walker has not been charged, but he did create a legal defense fund into which he's funneled $160,000 of campaign money.
Barrett hammered Walker on the issue, saying in his 28 years in public life he's never had a single staff member charged with a crime and he's never opened a criminal defense fund.
Walker said Barrett was bringing up the probe to distract from other issues.
"He's not winning on jobs, he's not winning on the budget, he's not winning on our reforms," Walker said.
Barrett also chastised Walker for his most recent television ad that takes Barrett to task over a report that Milwaukee police misrepresented the city's crime statistics resulting in an apparent drop in violent crime when there actually was an increase.
"If Tom Barrett is willing to cover up hundreds of violent crimes in Milwaukee, what else is he hiding?" the narrator of Walker's ad says.
Barrett said Walker knows the ad falsely attacks his integrity and he should be ashamed of it.
"I have a Police Department that arrests felons," Barrett said. "He has a practice of hiring them."