Walker and Barrett Get Personal as Wisconsin Recall Reaches Finish

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Why mudslinging has overshadowed the labor fight that started the push to get rid of the governor 16 months ago

As the Wisconsin recall came down to its final, furious days, the fight between Gov. Scott Walker and the man who would oust him from power, Democrat Tom Barrett, took a personal turn.

Forget Walker's rammed-through collective bargaining bill that set this whole thing in motion 16 months ago; in the final debate between the two candidates, Barrett accused Walker of dirty tactics for airing a crime-themed ad he compared to the notorious "Willie Horton" spot -- and then he all but called Walker a crook.

"I have a police department that arrests felons," Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee, said in the debate's most charged exchange. "He has a practice of hiring them.".

This is what it had come to as the long-awaited recall finally dawned Tuesday: two candidates reaching desperately for any new argument that might budge an electorate whose minds seem firmly made up. Polls have consistently shown Barrett lagging Walker, but because it's expected to be close, both sides view their sophisticated turnout operations as potentially decisive.

The ad in question, being aired by Walker's campaign, opens with the blurred face of a two-year-old who died after being hospitalized for child abuse. "But Tom Barrett's police department didn't consider it a violent crime," the narrator intones, going on to conclude that Barrett "isn't telling the truth."

At issue is a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation that found that the Milwaukee police department failed to correctly report many violent crimes, making the city's crime statistics look better than they actually were -- a technique you may recall from Season Five of The Wire. But Barrett contends that the ad's emotionally charged imagery all but accuses him of killing a small child. And Democrats call the ad a sign that Walker's camp is desperate and flailing about for distractions from the real issues.

Meanwhile, Walker's opponents have pushed to tie an ongoing scandal involving former Walker aides to the governor. The so-called "John Doe" investigation, which is ongoing, centers around allegations of misuse of government time and money during Walker's tenure as the county executive of Milwaukee. It has already resulted in the arrest of three former Walker aides, two of his appointees and a major donor, while 13 others have been granted immunity to aid the investigation. Walker has amassed a large legal-defense fund but insists he is not a target of the investigation; Democrats point to the circumstantial evidence to claim that something fishy clearly was happening on his watch.

If both these issues seem like sideshows compared to what the recall is supposed to be about -- a referendum on Walker, his agenda, and his style of governance -- that's because views of Walker appear deeply entrenched among the Wisconsin electorate. His approval rating has barely budged in the past year, despite both sides spending tens of millions on TV ads. So both sides are reaching for novel arguments -- and working to turn out the vote. On Tuesday night, the long-running battle for Walker's job will finally have a victor.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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