By Nick Carey
LA CROSSE Wis. (Reuters) - When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker cut back on collective bargaining rights for public employees soon after taking office, the move prompted a 2012 recall election that he won - putting him on the not-very-short list of possible 2016 Republican presidential contenders.
But first, Walker must win re-election. And if Tuesday's primary vote comes in as expected, Democrat Mary Burke will be the opponent standing in his way.
Burke has surprised some observers by not emphasizing Act 10, the Walker-backed law that led to the recall push. Frequent sightings of bumper stickers with "Recall Walker" or "Stand with Walker" are a legacy of the political battles over the issue.
Burke says she supports having public-sector workers contribute more to pensions and healthcare, while arguing they should retain collective bargaining rights. Yet she does not emphasize the issue in her stump speech and explains she wants to move Wisconsin past it.
"There were a lot of people who did not feel that there had to be the divisiveness that tore our state apart," Burke said recently after touring a business center in the river city of La Crosse. "It became political and that's not in the best interests of the people of Wisconsin."
FISCAL CONSERVATIVE DEMOCRAT
A former executive at Trek Bicycle, which her father founded, Burke declares herself a fiscal conservative. But she also takes stances - in favor of raising the minimum wage, overturning Walker's decision to refuse federal dollars for the expansion of Medicaid and opposing cuts to education - that make her popular with the Democratic rank-and-file.
"I don't care if they're Republican or Democratic ideas, let's choose the ones that are going to work and let's bring people together," Burke told Reuters.
Burke has also focused on Walker's inability to fulfill a promise to create 250,000 jobs in his first term. So far, there are fewer than 100,000 new jobs in Wisconsin under Walker, according to government data. Pundits note that at the current pace, it would take until Walker's third term to reach his goal.
Burke had a cautious start as a campaigner, but analysts now say she is showing savvy, staying focused on her message, just like her opponent.
"It could be that the Democrats have found their own Scott Walker," said Mordecai Lee, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.
The race is tight, with the last three polls effectively tied with less than three months until the election. In late May the non-partisan Cook Political Report moved the gubernatorial race in Wisconsin from "Lean Republican" to "Toss Up," with "a bit of a thumb on the scale for Walker."
Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette University Law School poll that also has shown the race up for grabs, said voters view Burke as a clean slate. "But it's an open question how she will fare against a skilled campaigner like Walker when the campaign heats up," he said.
Walker's campaign has so far sought to tie Burke to Walker's predecessor Jim Doyle, governor when Wisconsin struggled with budget deficits and unemployment peaking at 9.2 percent. Burke served as Democrat Doyle's commerce secretary from 2005 to 2007.
Voters will have "a clear choice between a record of job growth and balanced budgets under Governor Walker or a return to the large deficits and job losses Wisconsin suffered under Jim Doyle," said Walker spokesman Tom Evenson.
Walker is showing a pronounced fundraising advantage. His campaign through the end of July had raised $8.3 million this year, compared to $4.15 million for Burke. Walker has $7.6 million in cash on hand; Burke, just $1.7 million.
Among the undecided is Wyatt Hrudka, 24, who builds customized bicycles. After meeting Burke in La Crosse, Hrudka said he wants to know which candidate can most help his business grow.
"I'll make up my mind on this race when I see some details from both sides on how they can help entrepreneurs like me," Hrudka said.
(Editing by David Greising and Eric Walsh)