JANESVILLE, Wis. (AP) — Mitt Romney is looking to capitalize on a big Republican victory in Wisconsin as he visits the state for the first time since GOP Gov. Scott Walker survived a contentious recall election.
Wisconsin hasn't voted for a Republican for president since 1984, and President Barack Obama won big here in 2008. But now that Walker has challenged public sector unions and survived a Democratic push to oust him as governor, Republicans sense an opportunity — and Romney plans to continue his six-state bus tour in Janesville, about 75 miles southwest of Milwaukee.
Still, the candidate was cautious in assessing his chances. "It's just such a long way out. So much happens," Romney told reporters on his campaign plane when asked if Walker's win made him more optimistic he could carry the state in November. "I can't make any predictions other than we're going to work hard and have some fun tomorrow."
Romney will appear in Wisconsin with Rep. Paul Ryan, the architect of the House Republican budget that would restructure America's entitlement programs. Ryan's hometown of Janesville was hard hit by the economic recession; a General Motors plant used to employ thousands here, but it closed in 2009.
The stop will begin the fourth day of a five-day bus tour that has already taken Romney from New Hampshire to Pennsylvania to Ohio. Romney also plans to campaign in Iowa on Monday, with a boat tour in Dubuque and a rally in Davenport. He plans to campaign in Michigan on Tuesday.
Ryan is one of several potential vice presidential picks to campaign with Romney throughout the tour. The likely presidential nominee has also appeared with New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman.
Heavy with both factories and farms, Ryan's district in southern Wisconsin is typically carried by Democratic presidential candidates. Obama carried the state by 14 points in 2008 — an unusual margin, given that Democrats John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000 each won Wisconsin by less than a single percentage point.
Walker and Republicans swept into power in 2010, turning the entire state legislature to their side and knocking Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold from office. Obama's campaign is clearly nervous, moving the state from trending toward the president to undecided.
"We are not really a red state or a blue state. We really aren't," said state Sen. Tim Cullen, a moderate Democrat from Janesville who previously worked as a cabinet secretary for Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. "People in this state split their ticket in huge numbers, so it's not at all unusual to have people vote for Gov. Walker and President Obama."
An Associated Press exit poll of voters in the Walker recall showed a majority said they would vote for Obama in five months.
Still, Republicans are confident in the wake of Walker's 7-point recall win on June 5. Republicans here point to an energized ground organization they built to keep Walker in office, and Romney inherits a party infrastructure that made 4.5 million voter contacts in recent months and has 26 field offices across the state.
"That is the organizational strength we're going to take to November," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said after the recall election. "We crushed the Democrats on the ground. We beat them at their own game."
The Obama campaign has been on the ground organizing in Wisconsin but hasn't spent money on advertising for months. Neither Obama nor Romney has run TV ads in the state.
Obama steered clear of Wisconsin during the recall race, never campaigning for the Democratic candidate. Obama's last visit to Wisconsin was in February, at a Master Lock plant in Milwaukee.
Unemployment in Wisconsin has ticked gradually downward this year, falling to 6.7 percent in April, which is lower than the national average. But Janesville, a city of about 60,000, has lagged.
The city's unemployment rate spiked to almost 16 percent in the months after the GM plant closed before gradually falling to 9 percent in April. That is still the seventh highest for any Wisconsin city.
Bauer reported from Madison, Wis. Associated Press writer Brian Bakst contributed to this report.