By Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — It was respectful and understated, perhaps even a bit dull.
Gov. Scott Walker and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett squared off in the first of two gubernatorial recall debates Friday night in Milwaukee, and it was anything but passionate. The candidates, both wearing light blue shirts, red ties and dark suits, politely fielded questions from panelists. But they didn’t break any new ground.
In fact, if you’ve seen the campaign ads the two candidates have been running for the past few months, but managed to miss Friday’s first gubernatorial debate, well, you didn’t miss much.
Sponsored by the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, the first of the debates was broadcast live across the state and nationally on CSPAN.
Walker and Barrett will face each other again before voters go to the polls on June 5. On Thursday, they are scheduled to appear at Marquette University Law School’s hosted debate.
Both candidates kept to their talking points:
- Barrett says Walker incited an “ideological civil war” through the changes to public employee collective bargaining, and has threatened Wisconsinites’ quality of life from cutting $1.6 billion from education and local government aid.
- Walker says his reforms are working, that he and the GOP-led Legislature balanced the budget without increasing taxes, and Democrats are focusing on other issues, such as the John Doe investigation, to distract from his administration’s “it’s working” message.
Walker passed on his chance to ask Barrett one question.
But Barrett didn’t pass up the opportunity to ask if Walker would release more details about his out-of-state campaigning and fundraising.
Walker replied, “People have seen me all across the state,” working for their best interests.
Asked how he would bring unity the highly polarized state, Walker said it’s time to for Wisconsinites to work together, moving beyond the collective bargaining issue.
“Going back and rehashing the same debate we had last year, as my opponent wants to do, is not the way to move forward,” the governor said.
Walker began by reminding viewers that, when he took office, the state was in a tough spot — high unemployment and a budget shortfall, both of which he has been addressing with tough choices.
Barrett began by saying that the race is not a repeat of the 2010 gubernatorial race because the state can’t redo the damage Walker has inflicted.
But this race is, in essence, a retread of 2010, when Walker, then Milwaukee County executive, beat Barrett 52 percent to 46 percent.
Three months later, Walker introduced the systemic collective bargaining reforms that rallied Democrats and the union troops, ultimately setting the stage for the June 5 Walker-Barrett rematch.
Thus far, however, Barrett’s fortunes don’t seem to be changing much from two years ago.
Although Barrett’s campaign has been touting an internal poll this week they say puts the Milwaukee mayor in a dead heat with the governor, independent polls taken in the past few weeks have given Walker a slight, but distinct, lead of about 5 percent.
Perhaps the most comprehensive poll being conducted on Wisconsin politics at the moment, by Marquette Law School, put Walker up by 6 points in a poll of likely voters taken directly after the May 8 Democratic primary.
Marquette will release its next poll data Wednesday, a day before the school hosts its gubernatorial debate.
University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist Barry Burden said it was surprising that Barrett didn’t get a bigger bounce in the polls from his overwhelming defeat of the other Democrats in the May party primary.
But Burden said it’s still possible for Barrett to pick up ground before the election.
“There’ll be two debates — and we’ve seen these two debates before, there weren’t exactly fireworks — but you can imagine something happening in those debates” to change the dynamics of the race, he said.
If Democrats can energize their base, they have a shot, but right now, he said, “the advantage is for Walker.”