By Jeff Mason
MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - President Barack Obama brought his weight on Tuesday to a close Wisconsin governor's race that pits Democratic policies on equal pay and union rights against a Republican vision of smaller government from a potential 2016 presidential contender.
Obama, who has made only rare appearances on the 2014 campaign trail because of low popularity ratings, came to Milwaukee to support Democrat Mary Burke, a former Trek Bicycle executive.
She is running to replace Governor Scott Walker, a Republican whose effort to strip public-sector unions of much of their power led to a recall effort in 2012 that he survived.
The two candidates are effectively tied in the polls.
A loss for Walker could quash his hopes of being in the mix for the Republican party’s presidential nomination in 2016, but a win could position him well for a primary race that is expected to begin next year.
Obama's trip highlights a sharp ideological divide between him and Walker.
The president, like many Democrats, is a strong supporter of the right to collective bargaining and has campaigned repeatedly to raise the minimum wage and to implement measures to ensure men and women are paid equally.
Walker's anti-union policies deeply divided his state and made him extremely unpopular with Democrats, but his win in the recall election gave him and his party a boost. Walker repealed an equal pay act in his state.
"I don't understand ... why would you want to repeal a law to make sure women are treated fairly on the job? That's your platform? That's your agenda?" Obama said to an enthusiastic rally crowd. "It don't make no sense."
In another implicit slam at Walker, Obama said Burke would not put political ideology or partisanship first if she became governor, and said her record as a businesswoman would help spur the state's economy.
"Wisconsin lags the rest of the country when it comes to job growth," he said. "Over the next week you have a chance to change that."
Obama's advisers believe his trip to Wisconsin could help increase voter turnout, especially among African American voters. The campaign event, held in a school gymnasium, was made up of a predominantly African American crowd.
Walker sent out a fundraising email on Tuesday saying Obama's visit was aimed solely at Democratic Party members and, perhaps needling the president for his low approval ratings, questioned why he had not come to Wisconsin earlier.
"Mary Burke wants President Obama here to mobilize her base of straight-party votes," Walker wrote. "But Fellow Conservative, if we turn out every voter who DISAPPROVES of President Obama's performance, we WIN," the email said.
In addition to fundraising, Obama has focused his campaign work in 2014 largely on getting out the vote and fighting back against a tendency by Democrats not to turn out in midterm elections.
"She will be your next governor as long as folks vote," Obama told an overflow crowd that did not fit into the gym, referring to Burke.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)