By Eric Kleefeld
With the clock winding down in the Wisconsin recall, Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett met Thursday night for a final debate -- one that quickly turned into a knockdown, drag-out fight.
The previous debate last week was essentially a draw, in which both candidates performed solidly at tasks they each needed to accomplish in terms of public credibility. This time, though, Barrett did not let up in his attacks on Walker, and had a ready response to each of Walker's own knocks against him.
But whether it will be enough of a momentum boost for Barrett, who is still trailing Walker in polling and cash heading into Tuesday's election, remains to be seen.
Walker is widely viewed as the frontrunner, but there remains some potential for an upset. Walker went into the debate leading 49.7 percent to 48.5 percent in the TPM Poll Average.
On top of the badly needed debate performance, Barrett is getting a late boost from high-wattage Democrats, including campaign appearances by DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Democratic Governors Association Chairman Martin O'Malley, and an upcoming appearance Friday by former President Bill Clinton.
But Walker has already received help from surrogates throughout the contest -- he's gotten backup from several high-profile Republicans, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and others, and is set to campaign with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on Friday.
Walker sounded a familiar theme in the debate's opening, in defining the stakes of the recall: "It's ultimately about whether or not we want politicians to act on tough decisions. I've heard for years from Democrat and Republican voters alike, that politicians complain for years, and then don't do anything about it when they get into office."
Walker was then quizzed on a recently revealed videotaped conversation from January 2011, in which he told a wealthy donor -- who wanted right-to-work legislation -- that he would "divide and conquer," starting with his upcoming legislation against public employee unions.
Walker told moderator Mike Gousha that the remark meant he would "stand up and take on the powerful special interests in this state," referring to public employee unions, which previously controlled health insurance benefits for public workers. He also refused to say definitively whether he would sign a right-to-work bill, dismissing it as a "hypothetical" because such a bill would not pass the legislature.
"I've said it's not gonna get there, you're asking a hypothetical," said Walker. "And the reason I say that is I saw what happened over the last year and half. And I don't want to repeat that discussion. I think most people in the state, Democrat and Republican alike, want to move forward."
Barrett was happy to answer on Walker's behalf: "If that bill hits his desk, he's signing it. I say it right here in front of Wisconsin," he said, comparing Walker's denials to similar past statements from Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. "The Thursday before the Super Bowl, Mitch Daniels made Indiana a right-to-work state. Mark my words, he'll sign it."
The two also continued to joust over whether the state has lost or gained jobs -- thanks to a maneuver by the Walker administration two weeks ago, when the state's Department of Workforce Development released a jobs report based on a different measurement method using quarterly census data and tax reports. The Walker administration maintains it is superior to the usual monthly surveys that have shown a loss. The quarterly figures were released more than a month ahead of the normal schedule, before the federal government finishes its own review of them for a national report in late June.
The Walker administration on Wednesday touted an email from the federal government, saying it had reviewed the numbers, and Walker cited this as proof that the numbers were fully verified. Barrett continued, however, to point out that the Bureau of Labor Statistics will not confirm the data to the media.
Walker said: "They reviewed and verified the numbers. I realize this undermines all your ads for the last two months, but facts are facts."
"The fact is even with your numbers, we're dead last in the Midwest," Barrett said. "If that's what you're proud of, and you want to be mediocre, we're dead last in the Midwest."
Walker replied that he was glad to hear Barrett finally accepting the numbers.
The two also fought it out on the "John Doe" investigation of former Walker aides, regarding campaigning on government time when Walker was Milwaukee County executive.
"Today, another person was granted immunity, a 13th person was granted immunity," said Barrett. "And she was given immunity because she refused to answer questions, on the grounds that it may incriminate her and it all stems around a secret computer system that was 25 feet from your office. And I've asked a series of questions. Release the emails."
Walker countered that the investigation stemmed from an employee improperly using office resources. "We took action that day. That person was no longer in our office," Walker said. "The reason the mayor wants to talk about this is he's not winning on the budget, he's not winning on jobs, he's not winning on our reforms," and is thus looking for an issue to hammer away at.
Walker used Barrett's accusations about impropriety surrounding the investigation to dredge up a recent report on crime statistics.
"You have something you can reveal," Walker said, "The city of Milwaukee is withholding on a data request from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel," on the paper's story that found the city's police department under-reported its violent crime rates to FBI crime statistics, classifying some incidents as minor assaults.
"Even though you said that violent crime had gone down in the city, the Journal Sentinel investigative team found out that's not the case, it's gone up."
Barrett then denounced an ad that Walker has run on this story, making it appear that the city police department failed to address a very serious case of child abuse that ultimately resulted in a young child's death.
"He's running a commercial right now that shows a dead baby. He shows a dead baby -- this is Willie Horton stuff," said Barrett. "That baby died. The person who killed that baby was arrested by the Milwaukee Police, was prosecuted by the Milwaukee district attorney. They did their job. But you know what they did wrong? After that baby died, they didn't change the code. It was a bureaucratic mistake I'll tell you right now. I had nothing to do with that. Look at that commercial. You should be ashamed of that commercial, Scott Walker."
Walker contended that the story was relevant, in light of Barrett having campaigned on a downturn in violent crime in Milwaukee -- and is thus a matter of both Barrett's qualifications, and his honesty.
Barrett retorted: "I have a police department that arrests felons. He has a practice of hiring them."
The two were also asked what would be needed for the state to move forward after the contentious recall.
"I think the first thing we have to do off the bat is change the recall laws," Walker said, predicting that both Democrats and Republicans would be for it. Walker charged that the state's protests and recalls had triggered a flood of special-interest money, and "recall ping-pong" that made it impossible for leaders to create a stable public policy.
"Talk about finding religion," Barrett shot back, saying that Walker had become Milwaukee County executive thanks to a recall.
Walker countered that the recall in 2002, targeting then-County Executive Tom Ament over a pensions scandal by the County Board, was justified based on clear misuse of office -- and criticized Barrett for not having spoken out against Ament at the time.
Voters will head to the polls on June 5.