NORTH HUDSON, Wis. (AP) — Out of necessity and emboldened by recent GOP strides in Wisconsin, Republican challenger Mitt Romney has drawn President Barack Obama into a fight for a state the incumbent Democrat won handily four years ago and his party hasn't lost since 1984.
Just two months before Election Day, Wisconsin has emerged as the latest presidential battleground. Television advertising is rushing in. And both campaigns are jockeying for its 10 electoral votes as each looks to rack up wins in enough states to accumulate the 270 votes needed for victory. Romney has fewer ways to do that so he's turned to Wisconsin — where Republicans like Gov. Scott Walker have had success since 2008 and where Romney running mate Paul Ryan lives — presumably in hopes that a win here will offset a loss elsewhere.
Republicans and Democrats say internal polling shows Obama ahead, though public surveys show a closer race.
Undeterred by the state's historic Democratic bent, Romney started airing TV ads here this week reminding voters of a ballooning federal debt that now tops $16 trillion. GOP outside groups already have spent weeks running ads raising concern over the Obama health care law and inviting those who backed him in 2008 to switch sides. Ryan, who is also on Wisconsin's ballot for his House seat, is reinforcing those messages with his own commercials paid for by his congressional campaign fund.
Refusing to cede ground, a pro-Obama group has reserved air time to run anti-Romney spots through November's election; Obama's campaign began ads in the state on Wednesday that argue Romney was looking out for the rich at the expense of the middle class.
Both candidates also are dispatching their No. 2s to the state; Ryan returned Wednesday for his third large-scale rally in a month and Democratic Vice President Joe Biden is swooping in Thursday to Eau Claire.
In neighborhoods like one in North Hudson, competing campaign signs are cropping up again. So are the divisions.
Retired teacher Ron Jacobson ticked off a list of reasons he can't stomach Obama, and confessed he's more excited about the prospect of Obama losing than Romney winning.
"He has to be a little more forceful," Jacobson said, urging the Republican nominee to show more of his personality, come harder at Obama and "toot his own horn a little bit more."
Chuck Schultz, a retired Methodist minister and counselor, backs Obama but has no illusion that 2012 will be as much of a walkover as 2008.
"Nothing is as exciting as the beginning of the new romance even though the long-term relationship is often more productive," Schultz said. "It's hard to be wildly enthusiastic about the guy who's not new anymore."
There are reasons for Romney to think he has a shot here, and that help explain why Obama's campaign and state Democrats have been girding for a closer election this fall than his 14-point win in 2008.
Wisconsin Republicans are on a hot streak. Not even two years into his term, Walker soundly fended off an expensive recall challenge sparked by moves to limit public employee benefits and union bargaining power. Tea party-supported Republican Ron Johnson upended Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold in one of the surprise races of 2010.
Mindful of those GOP victories, Obama prepared for a Wisconsin fight. He opened 50 offices where volunteers have been working to persuade voters for months. Romney has about half as many offices, but Republicans say they're hardly starting from scratch because many volunteers didn't let up after the hard-fought campaign to protect Walker's job in the June recall election.
"We're well positioned to compete," Romney senior adviser Kevin Madden said. "Because we have Paul Ryan on the ticket, it's just another reason why we think we can do very well there and put it in the win column in 2012."
It won't be easy. Obama's win was so decisive last time that he prevailed in 59 Wisconsin counties to John McCain's 13. Four years before, in 2004, Republican President George W. Bush amassed 45 county wins in his razor-thin loss in the state to Democratic Sen. John Kerry.
This November, Obama likely will convincingly win the counties encompassing the Democratic strongholds of Madison and Milwaukee. Romney almost certainly can bank on a surplus of votes in solidly conservative counties bordering Milwaukee. What happens in the midsize areas will prove more consequential in determining if Wisconsin resembles the 2000 and 2004 elections — when less than a half-percentage point made the difference — or the 2008 campaign that produced the Obama blowout.
The economy is at the top of voters' minds here.
Racine County, in Ryan's congressional district, has suffered from some of the worst unemployment in Wisconsin. The city's rate for July was 12.7 percent, highest in the state. Racine County's unemployment rate was 9.2 percent, ninth-highest statewide and far above the Wisconsin average of 7.3 percent.
Jane Witt, Racine County Democratic Party chairwoman, is confident that heavy canvassing, phone banking, house parties and outreach events will deliver the county of roughly 200,000 people for Obama again even if the sell might be tougher now.
"We know very well that a lot of people are not better off than they were four years ago," Witt said. "But on the other hand, I think people instinctively know (Romney) is not the way to go."
Ozaukee County Republican Party Chairman Jeff Johns said he's heartened that Romney is competing here. But the financial analyst said Romney needs to be smart about evaluating his return on investment, looking elsewhere if the state isn't clearly within reach.
"I'm a numbers man," Johns said. "I would give it another four weeks in Wisconsin and then reassess the chances of winning."
St. Croix County, the state's fastest-growing, is one of those proving grounds. Situated along a river separating Wisconsin and Minnesota, the county rebounded more quickly from the economic recession and has an unemployment rate almost 2 percentage points lower than the state average of 7.3 percent and far better than the nation's jobless rate.
The area has long tilted Republican, but Obama showed surprising strength in his last run and kept McCain close. Back in North Hudson, a bedroom community not far from a bustling brick-lined Main Street, Obama prevailed last time.
The vote? 1,078 for him, 1,077 for his GOP rival.
Associated Press writers Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis., and Thomas Beaumont in Ohio contributed to this report.