SHEBOYGAN, Wis. - Republicans see a lack of enthusiasm for President Obama when they look out across Wisconsin, and they're hoping that that diminished energy level will give them the opening they need to seize the traditionally Democratic state for GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
"I don't think there's any state where Obama has lost more ground than Wisconsin," said state Rep. Steve Kestell, a Romney supporter. "This is all about making sure our folks get out to vote and bring a friend."
Wisconsin nearly went for Republican George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, but it hasn't actually backed a Republican presidential contender since 1984, and though it's often a tempting target for the GOP, it has generally remained outside the party's reach. Obama thrashed his 2008 Republican rival, John McCain, by 14 percentage points and flipped dozens of Wisconsin counties from red to blue.
Despite that decisive defeat, Republicans grew more emboldened earlier this year when they beat back an effort to recall Gov. Scott Walker, the GOP leader who roiled the state when he sought to trim the influence of public employee labor unions.
"It helped us put the team together," Kestell said. "I'm sure the recall supporters didn't actually anticipate they'd be helping us come November."
Despite Walker's outsized role in motivating the Republican base, his presence in Wisconsin's presidential race is hardly that.
"I haven't noticed Romney or [running mate Paul] Ryan tying themselves to his record," said Michael Wagner, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "If there's some kind of Scott Walker effect, it's certainly not one that they're trying to broadcast to the most voters possible."
That hasn't stopped Republicans, though, from taking advantage of the grassroots network that the party mobilized to save Walker's job, and GOP officials say they are reaching out to Democrats who backed Walker in the June recall vote.
Democrats' efforts to combat Republican passions were made more difficult by the GOP's success in curbing the power of public labor unions, said University of Wisconsin Oshkosh political scientist Jim Simmons.
"With the end of collective bargaining, Democrats have a worse ground game because they were really dependent on rank-and-file union members," said Simmons, an Obama supporter who attended a rally that Vice President Biden held in Oshkosh on Friday.
The Obama campaign says, though, that fears about the health of its operation are unfounded.
"We still feel like we get the edge if Wisconsin truly comes down to ground game," said campaign spokesman Joe Zepecki. "We're going to keep the pedal to the floor."
The race in Wisconsin is likely to tighten further in the final week, observers say, and both campaigns are stepping up efforts to win it. Romney is slated to visit Milwaukee on Monday, his first trip to Wisconsin since August. Obama will appear in Green Bay the next day. Both are rallying support in areas that are critical if they are to notch a win here.
Brown County, which includes Green Bay, was one of the Republican counties Obama flipped four years ago. The county's 10-point swing from Republican in 2004 to Democratic in 2008 was the largest shift in the state.
And while Milwaukee itself is Democratic territory, its suburbs favor Republicans, and GOP operatives see voter turnout in the area as potentially decisive.