By Brendan O'Brien
MILWAUKEE, June 1 (Reuters) - George Posker and Neal Muller, union workers at a small manufacturing plant near Madison, want to see Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker recalled from office in a special vote next week because of his assault on labor unions.
But sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck bearing a "Recall Walker" bumper sticker, both expressed doubts about Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the man seeking to drive Walker from office.
"I want him to win, but I'm convinced he'll lose if he doesn't step up his game," Muller, 51, said. Neither Muller nor Posker voted for Barrett in the primary to select a Democratic challenger to Walker.
With just five days to the recall vote, Barrett is struggling to close the deal against Walker in a battle that has drawn national attention as a test case for key Republican and Democratic causes before the November presidential elections.
Democrats brought former President Bill Clinton to Milwaukee on Friday to give Barrett's campaign a boost, one of several top politicians from both parties to stop in Wisconsin. Clinton praised Barrett's leadership of the city, saying he had sought consensus rather than division.
"How did he do it? Shared sacrifice, shared responsibilities and not breaking the unions," Clinton said.
People who know Barrett personally describe him as the quintessential Midwestern nice guy - pragmatic rather than ideological, not flashy or passionate.
Barrett the peacemaker won wide praise three years ago when he came to the aid of a woman being assaulted by a man outside the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds, only to have her attacker turn on him with a tire iron. The mayor was seriously injured.
Despite Barrett's reputation for basic decency, every public poll published since he was chosen as the Democratic candidate for governor on May 8 has shown Barrett trailing.
Barrett won the primary over four other Democratic candidates.
UNION RESTRICTIONS AT ISSUE
A year ago, Walker set off a firestorm of protest by pushing a new law severely restricting public sector unions. It required teachers and others to pay more for pensions and health insurance, capped wage increases, made union dues voluntary and required unions to be recertified every year.
Unions generally back Democrats.
Thanks to Wisconsin's unusual recall law, the vote will not be up or down on Walker. It will be between Walker and Barrett, the same two candidates for governor as in 2010, when Walker won by 5 percentage points.
Barrett started his campaign late and his fund-raising always lagged behind that of Walker, who has traveled the country and been widely feted as a conservative conquering hero for taking on the unions.
Walker has gathered some $30 million in campaign donations since taking office in January 2011. Barrett has raised about $4 million since he joined the race in late March.
In the final debate between the two, on Thursday, Barrett said Walker was running eight television ads for every one by the Democrat.
"When you have a huge resource advantage like Walker has had and you're able to make your own case while making a strong case against an opponent, your likelihood to win goes up a lot," said Tad Devine, a Virginia-based Democratic strategist who worked for the unsuccessful John Kerry and Al Gore presidential campaigns.
There have been numerous local media reports of strains between Wisconsin Democrats and the national party, who are focused on getting President Barack Obama reelected and have only stepped up the flow of money to Wisconsin in recent days.
"That has been a problem for Barrett, that national Democrats were not enthusiastic about him," said John McAdams, a political scientist from Marquette University in Milwaukee.
CLOSE VOTE EXPECTED
Instead of focusing laser-like on the union collective bargaining issue, which was the driving force for the recall, Barrett has downplayed it and wandered from issue to issue.
In the debate on Thursday, Barrett spent little time attacking Walker on the union restrictions.
He mentioned Walker's travel outside the state, an investigation of Walker's ethics during his time as Milwaukee county executive, the jobs situation in the state, tax breaks for the rich, spending cuts, the influence of the conservative Tea Party movement if Walker survives the recall, and what Barrett called returning to "Wisconsin values."
This gave Walker an opening to accuse Barrett of having no specific, positive plan for the state.
"What exactly would he (Barrett) have done differently?" Walker asked, referring to a $3.6 billion budget gap that the state faced after the 2010 election, when Republicans swept to victory in the governor's race and majorities in both chambers of the legislature.
While Barrett is trailing in the polls, both sides say the outcome will be close. The Wisconsin state agency that manages elections forecasts a turnout of about 65 percent of registered voters on Tuesday, or about 2.2 million votes cast.
Assuming all of the 900,000 or so people who signed petitions seeking to recall the governor go to the polls and vote against Walker, Barrett would need to convince only about 250,000 to 300,000 additional voters to win.
What Democrats and unions may have underestimated is the fervor of conservatives, who support Walker's policy of curbing union power.
Some Walker supporters are telling pollsters they resent the pension plans and good health coverage that teachers and state workers receive. Such benefits are seldom offered in private sector jobs.
One other factor may be "recall exhaustion." Wisconsin staged nine recall elections for state senators last summer, the most in modern U.S. political history.
In addition to Walker, four state senate seats and the lieutenant governor are on the recall ballot on Tuesday. Walker has begun calling for a change to the state constitution to make it harder to hold such ballots in the future.
"I think there is a perception among at least some voters ... that believe recalls aren't legitimate based merely on policy differences," McAdams said. (Additional reporting by Nick Carey; Editing by Greg McCune)