By Brendan O'Brien
MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - Democrats and unions hoping to turf Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker out of office over his efforts to tame the power of organized labor are finding it tough going with only two weeks to go before a historic recall election.
Just over a year ago, Walker set off a storm that looked like it could sweep him from power over a new law that critics labeled "union busting."
Walker pushed through the legislature a law requiring public sector union members to pay part of the cost of health insurance and pensions, limited pay rises, made paying union dues voluntary and forced unions to be recertified every year.
Opponents sought revenge by collecting nearly a million signatures from voters to force a special election on June 5. It looked like Walker's days were numbered.
National attention has been riveted on the Wisconsin recall, which some political pundits call the second most important election of 2012 after the presidential vote, because it could show which way the wind is blowing this year.
But since Democrats chose Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett on May 8 as their candidate to challenge Walker in the recall, the Republican governor has not trailed in a single public opinion poll.
A Marquette Law School poll last week showed Walker leading Barrett 50 to 44 percent among likely voters, a small but important lead because there are an extraordinarily low number of undecided voters.
Then over the weekend, Walker got the endorsement of the state's most influential newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
"A disagreement over a single policy is simply not enough to justify a vote against the governor," the newspaper said of the anger over Walker's union measures.
"It's time to end the bickering and get back to the business of the state. We've had our differences with the governor, but he deserves a chance to complete his term," said the paper, which endorsed him in the 2010 governor's race as well.
It is not clear how much the endorsement will affect voters, most of whom have long since decided whether they love or hate Walker.
"I'm not entirely shocked … but is it disappointing? Of course it's disappointing," said Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council of the newspaper's endorsement. Teachers are among those who were forced to make concessions in the law championed by Walker.
NEW CONSERVATIVE STAR
Walker has raised $25 million in campaign contributions since taking office, about 60 percent of which is from out-of-state donors while Barrett has raised $831,000 in the first three weeks of his candidacy, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
Democrats and unions thought they had the most motivated voters in the recall. But the primary election earlier this month suggested that Republicans are just as enthusiastic about Walker.
Despite having only token opposition in the primary, Walker received almost as many votes as all the Democrats combined in a contested Democratic primary.
"This is a new national star for Republicans and conservatives," said Mordecai Lee, a professor of governmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Walker has so far withstood a steady drip of revelations from an investigation into corruption during his time as Milwaukee County Executive.
The probe has resulted in criminal charges against five former aides and close political associates. The allegations range from embezzlement and theft to political solicitation by a public employee and misconduct in public office.
Walker, who says he is not a target of the investigation, has nevertheless set up a legal defense fund.
Even a video made public earlier this month, in which Walker candidly tells a political supporter of his "divide and conquer" strategy to tame unions, appears not to have surprised voters or hurt his standing.
Barrett and Walker face each other for a debate on Friday, and then another debate on May 31.
The Barrett campaign said internal polls show the race narrowing. "This campaign feels very confident and we feel like we are moving in the right direction," Barrett spokesman Phil Walzak said.
But political analyst Lee said time is running out for Barrett to find a way to recapture the rage against the union measures pushed by Walker.
"He's got that magic attribute that all politicians would kill for and that's Teflon," Lee said. "Nothing sticks to him."
(Editing by Greg McCune and Anthony Boadle)