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In bid to unseat Wisconsin governor, whither the challengers?

By Brendan O'Brien

MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - Critics of Wisconsin's Governor Scott Walker showed on Tuesday how unpopular he is with many voters, filing more than 1 million signed petitions -- nearly twice the number needed -- to force the first-term Republican to defend himself in a special election.

On Wednesday, they faced what is likely to be a harder task: finding a Democrat who can beat the battle-tested 44-year-old.

"There is no single preeminent candidate," said Charles Franklin, a political scientist and visiting professor of law and public policy at Marquette University, said of the Democrats who might challenge Walker, who gained a national following in leading a successful push to curb Wisconsin's public unions.

Although some Democrats have hinted in recent weeks they might be interested in running against Walker in a recall, so far no one with a marquee name has committed to what is sure to be a bruising fight. No date has been set for the election.

On Wednesday, Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk announced her candidacy. But Falk, who governs the county that encompasses Madison, the state's capital, is viewed by the Wisconsin political insiders as a weak candidate given her past political losses and her liberal fiscal platform.

Due to those factors, political analysts say Falk will almost certainly have company. Other Democrats mentioned as possible candidates have included Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, former congressman David Obey and State Senator Tim Cullen.

None has the cachet of Russ Feingold, the former Democratic senator popular among progressives. But an effort last summer to draft Feingold fizzled when he announced he was not interested.

"Polling shows that (Walker) has one of the highest name recognitions in the country among active governors," Franklin said. "None of the Democrats are at that same level of name recognition and familiarity."

In November, 2010, Walker defeated Barrett in the governor's election by 52 to 46 percent -- a margin of 124,000 votes out of 2.13 million cast.

A Democratic primary, needed if more than one Democratic challenger enters the fray, could divert time and money from the fight against Walker, who set off a firestorm by curtailing the collective bargaining rights of unionized public workers.

A weak Democratic candidate, and a Democratic loss in the special election, could have implications for President Obama's reelection hopes.

Indeed, a Walker triumph in a special election could turn Wisconsin, currently a battleground state, into a GOP stronghold, according to Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics and a professor of politics at the University of Virginia.

"If Walker is reelected and Republicans are energized because of this, that will have an impact in the presidential race," Sabato said. "I bet if the White House had their druthers the recall would not be happening."

Organizers of the drive to recall Walker submitted what appeared to be more than enough signatures on Tuesday to trigger the special election.

Sabato said that shows the polarizing effect Walker and his agenda has had on the state.

"The hatred for Scott Walker on the Democratic side is white hot and that is what generated the one million signatures and that is what gives them a great base," said Sabato.

Walker has remained undeterred during his tumultuous first year as governor. During the passage of collective bargaining legislation, the governor pressed on even in the wake of massive protests at the Capitol each day.

When 14 Democratic state senators left the state in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to deny the Republican-controlled body a quorum and halt action on the proposals, Walker and his allies engineered passage without them.

"He was in a bunker mentality very quickly in February of his first term and maybe having survived that may make a more resilient politician now," said Barry Burden, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin.

The Republican hold on the state legislature has also survived the political storm kicked up by the collective bargaining reforms, which Walker and his allies defended as necessary to address a gaping budget hole.

Although six Republican state senators were forced to defend their seats in special recall elections this summer, only two lost their seats. As a result, Republicans held onto a razor thin majority, 17-16, in the Senate.

In addition to Walker, four Republicans Senators, including Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, are facing the possibility of recall elections in a second round of special elections triggered by the union fight.

Officials at the state's Government Accountability Board said last week they may need more than 60 days to verify the signatures submitted on Tuesday. Currently, the law requires the process to be completed in 31 days.

According to a Government Accountability Board report, processing recall petitions will cost the state more than $650,000. The total cost of recall elections for the state and municipalities may be more than $9 million, according to estimates from board officials.

(Editing by James Kelleher and Peter Bohan)

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