By John Whitesides
MADISON, Wisconsin (Reuters) - The presidential nomination race has been gripping Republicans across the nation, but it's just a sideshow for many voters in Wisconsin's primary next week.
Instead of the battle between White House hopefuls Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, it's the passionate struggle to save Republican Governor Scott Walker from a Democratic-led recall effort that is consuming Wisconsin Republicans.
Walker's recall election, tentatively scheduled for June 5, has sucked up virtually all of the energy and focus of state Republicans, leaving the presidential candidates struggling to grab a piece of the spotlight.
"There has been so much attention on the recall that it has overshadowed everything, including the presidential campaign," said Paul Gruber, Republican chairman in Wisconsin's Sheboygan County. "There hasn't been time for anyone to focus on anything else."
Yard signs and bumper stickers backing Walker or demanding his recall are common sights across the state, and volunteers have flooded local party offices on both sides. The presidential primary has attracted little of that enthusiasm.
"Normally by this point we'd be getting flooded with requests for signs or information on the presidential candidates, but we've had virtually none of that. All of our requests have been for Walker," said Bill Folk, Republican chairman in Racine County.
"The presidential primary is taking a back seat," he said.
The lack of intensity in the primary is a sharp departure for the hard-fought presidential race. Romney has taken a commanding lead in the battle to pick a challenger to President Barack Obama in the November 6 election.
A win in Wisconsin could be vital to Santorum's hopes of keeping his campaign afloat, but many state Republicans are still undecided or just beginning to make up their minds about the presidential candidates after months focused elsewhere.
"The recall has been a big distraction, there is no doubt about it, but I'm trying to pay attention to the presidential primary now," said Rick Rogowski, a truck driver from Juneau, Wisconsin, who attended a Santorum rally wearing a t-shirt that read: "Recall the Recallers."
The recall battle has been raging in Wisconsin for months, sparked by Walker's push for anti-union legislation curtailing collective bargaining for most public employees, which the Republican-controlled legislature passed last year.
That legislation triggered huge street demonstrations last year in Madison, the state capital, putting Wisconsin at the heart of a national debate on labor rights and leading to the recall effort against Walker, the Republican lieutenant governor and four Republican state senators.
CANDIDATES GET BEHIND WALKER
A Marquette University Law School poll on Tuesday found Romney with an 8-point edge over Santorum - 39 percent to 31 percent - in Wisconsin. Rivals Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich trailed far behind.
Wisconsin is the latest in a series of Midwestern showdowns between the two top Republican contenders. Romney beat Santorum in Michigan, Ohio and Illinois to solidify his nearly insurmountable lead in delegates to the August convention.
The Republican electorate in Wisconsin is similar to those states, with slightly fewer evangelical voters but slightly more blue-collar voters - two of the categories who have helped fuel the campaign of Santorum, a staunch social conservative.
Evangelicals accounted for 38 percent of primary voters in Wisconsin in 2008, compared to 47 percent in Ohio earlier this year. In Wisconsin in 2008, six of 10 voters had no college degree and four of 10 made less than $50,000 a year, slightly higher percentages than in Ohio and Illinois.
"If Romney won Ohio and Illinois, two states that mirror Wisconsin in their political composition, it would make sense that he's going to do well here, too," said John McAdams, a political scientist at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
Barbara Young-Schoenfeld, a retired home health nurse in Beaver Dam, said she liked Santorum's values and questioned Romney's empathy for the working class.
"Romney is too cocky and arrogant and he comes from a family with a lot of money. How can he understand the problems of poor people? He just doesn't get it," she said.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, and Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, have backed Walker, who has not endorsed anyone in the primary. Santorum drew his biggest cheers at a rally on Tuesday when he praised Walker.
"The people of Wisconsin are going to stand behind him because you know freedom is at stake," Santorum said. Romney praised Walker on Wednesday in a tele-conference with voters.
Obama easily won the state in the 2008 presidential election, but two years later Republicans roared back to elect Walker, defeat incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator Russ Feingold and capture the state legislature.
The recall has fired up and helped organize voters on both sides of the ideological divide, and the outcome could be critical in determining whether Obama wins the state again in November, said Mark Gaul, a Wisconsin-based Republican consultant.
"The recall election will show whether the electorate in Wisconsin wants to take a different path than what Obama and the Democrats are offering," he said. "The losers, the people in the trenches, will be tremendously deflated."
Polls indicate Walker will be in for a tight battle. The Marquette poll showed him with a two-point edge over one potential Democratic challenger and a four-point edge on another.
As important as the primary may be, the recall has triggered deeper passions and caused strains in friendships. "I've got a neighbor who won't talk to me," said Mary Teichmiller, a retired factory worker in Beaver Dam who backs Walker.
Ric Fiegel, a small business worker who is undecided about who to support in the Republican primary, said it will "be nice to get the recall out of the way. It overshadows everything."
Wisconsin is the top contest of the three primaries scheduled for Tuesday. Romney is expected to easily romp in the other two - heavily Democratic Maryland and the District of Columbia.
Wisconsin has 42 of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the Republican nomination.
(Editing by Alistair Bell and Paul Simao)