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Next Stop for Democrats: Wisconsin

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

With one party's nomination all but settled and the other's still up in the air, it may be the perfect time for the campaigns to move to Wisconsin. That's a state with a long history of open primaries. And this next Tuesday is the latest chance for independents and crossover voters to throw a curve to the experts, as NPR's David Schaper reports from the state capital of Madison.

DAVID SCHAPER: In these polarized political times, it's sometimes surprising to hear that there are still quandaries like this.

Ms. BECKY OLSON (Executive Director, Upper Sugar River Watershed Association): I'm actually looking at both parties and all three candidates.

SCHAPER: Becky Olson is director of a non-profit conservation group in Belleville, Wisconsin. She's having a cup of coffee at the Ancora Coffee Shop, a snowball throw away from the state capital in Madison.

Ms. OLSON: Well, I should say four, but technically the three main candidates -being McCain, Clinton and Obama - because I don't know which way to go. They all have good things to say, and I'm still completely undecided.

SCHAPER: How can someone still be not just undecided between candidates, but between parties a week before a primary? Welcome to Wisconsin.

Mr. JOHN NICHOLS (Editorial Page Editor, Capital Times Newspaper): Wisconsin has the most open primary system and tradition in the country.

SCHAPER: John Nichol's is editorial page editor for the liberal-leaning Capital Times Newspaper in Madison. Being open means Wisconsin voters don't even have to register ahead of time. They can register on site. And voters here don't have to declare what party's primary they'll vote in. All are listed on one ballot.

Mr. NICHOLS: There's been a tradition of people coming across lines to vote for people they liked.

SCHAPER: Nichols predicts epic numbers of Republicans voting in the Democratic primary, not to sabotage the race, but because they really want to. He says Wisconsin is really a romantic state, politically.

Mr. NICHOLS: This is a state that likes to dream and believe, the state that embraced John Kennedy in 1960 over our neighbor, Hubert Humphrey. This is a state that embraced Gene McCarthy in '68 over the incumbent Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson.

SCHAPER: That history, Nichols says, bodes well for Barack Obama, whom his paper endorsed Tuesday. But Wisconsin is far from a slam dunk for the senator from neighboring Illinois.

Mr. PAUL MASLIN (Democratic Pollster): Now remember, there are two Wisconsins here. We shouldn't overstate either one of them.

SCHAPER: Madison-based Democratic pollster Paul Maslin, who had been working for Bill Richardson's campaign and is now unaffiliated, says yes, Wisconsin Democrats do have this progressive tradition that might be favorable to Obama.

Mr. MASLIN: On the other hand, there's a gritty side in both Milwaukee and then throughout the northern part of the state, a very gritty side that, in some ways, may be more receptive to Senator Clinton. So I think it's a tough call.

SCHAPER: Maslin agrees that with John McCain solidifying his lead Tuesday, many Wisconsin Republicans and Independents who would otherwise vote for McCain might be drawn to the Democratic primary here next Tuesday and Obama, but not Mel and Sharon Hartzler of Fond du Lac. Finishing up their dinner at Schreiner's Restaurant, the 70-year institution in the solidly conservative east central part of the state, this teacher and firefighter say they might not vote for McCain nor the Democrats.

Mr. MEL HARTZLER (Firefighter): You've got Huckabee out there, too. I might throw a vote his way. I don't know.

Ms. SHARON HARTZLER (Teacher): We like his really strong Christian foundation, and so even though we know he couldn't win as the presidential candidate…

Mr. HARTZLER: I think it would send a message to McCain.

SCHAPER: Huckabee's planning to campaign in Wisconsin to test his outsider status and populous economic message in a state that identifies with mavericks and underdogs.

David Schaper, NPR News in Madison, Wisconsin.

MONTAGNE: And you can learn more about what's at stake in Wisconsin for the candidates by going to npr.org/elections. You can also get complete results from yesterday's Potomac primaries. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.

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