The trailers in this year's presidential quest are counting on Wisconsin's reputation as a progressive, maverick state to give their campaigns new life in the April 1 primary.
Although party loyalty among candidates themselves has been a hot topic of debate, each candidate clearly hopes the voters in Wisconsin's open primary will not let any sense of party loyalty keep them from voting for him.
At this writing, President Carter and Ronald Reagan are considered the front-runners.
The most recent statewide poll, taken in early March by the Milwaukee Sentinel, shows President Carter running ahead of all Republicans by more than 2 to 1 and ahead of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy by more than 3 to 1.
That same poll showed the three major Republican candidates running about even with one another, but Wisconsin Republican Party chairman Michael Borden insists that Mr. Reagan's campaign has forged ahead:
"[Congressman John B.] Anderson will do fairly well in the crossover vote and [George] Bush could make a reasonably good showing if his campaign picks up visibility in the next week, but Reagan is the front-runner. He's definitely the man to beat."
The most active and visible campaigners in Wisconsin for the last several months have been California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., who bills himself as an "insurgent candidate in the La Follette tradition," and Mr. Anderson of neighboring Illinois, who is riding a fresh wave of popularity in Wisconsin after his strong showing in his home state. Their courting of University of Wisconsin students and the liberal voters of Dane County around Madison is expected to cut into the strong showing Kennedy supporters had expected there.
Yet Governor Brown, who stresses that he beat President Carter in the last five primaries of 1976, is not expected to net more than 5 to 8 percent of the state's Democratic vote.
Mr. Anderson, whose campaign is considered well organized and who has stepped up his attacks on Mr. Reagan as unelectable in November, has the endorsement of both the Wisconsin State Journal and the Capital Times. The Times has never before endorsed a Republican.
"Shifting parties and casting strategic votes happens a lot in this state," comments Steve Chaffee, a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin who has done considerable work in the political polling field. "And if Anderson has a chance to win a primary, it's this one."
"We're looking for a win here," confirms Ann Peckham, state coordinator of the Anderson campaign. "I've never seen so much and such enthusiastic support for any candidate I've ever worked for -- it's terrifically reassuring."
Although Ronald Reagan won no Wisconsin delegates in the 1976 race, most political analysts credit him with a strong base of support here built up over time. He is expected to do particularly well in the conservative Fox River Valley (La Crosse, Eau Claire, and the Milwaukee suburbs -- the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy's home territory).
"We've always looked at Wisconsin as a state where there was nothing to lose and everything to gain," says a spokesman for the Reagan campaign. "Our in-house polls show a large number of undecideds out there -- I'm not predicting victory, but we know it's possible."
George Bush, who portrays himself as the moderate choice for Republicans who want to defeat President Carter, will step up his campaigning in Wisconsin this week, taking only a breather next weekend to visit Kansas, where there is also an April 1 primary. Most political analysts agree that only a strong sign of renewed vigor can revive his campaign.
"There's been a Bush presence here all along, but you don't see that much of a strong effort, and the interest there was has sort of fallen off," Professor Chaffee notes.
Jimmy Carter won a slim, surprise victory over Gerald Ford here in the 1976 presidential election and expected to fare well again in this year's primary. In the last election he carried several of the state's prime rural Republican areas, and in an effort to keep them he dispatched Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland recently on a five-day statewide campaign tour. This week, Mrs. Rosalynn Carter, son Chip, and former UN Ambassador Andrew Young arrived to try to stir up still more Carter support.
"We're confident we can win," insists Kurt Wiley, state coordinator of the Carter campaign. However, pointing to the popularity of John F. Kennedy with Wisconsin voters in 1960 and the state's progressive tradition, Mr. Wiley says he does not expect as wide a victory margin for President Carter in Wisconsin as he did in Illinois.
Senator Kennedy has more big-name support in Wisconsin than any other candidate. Former Gov. Patrick Lucey is the national spokesman for the Kennedy campaign, while US Rep. Les Aspin is a co-chairman of the state effort, and Rep. Robert Kastenmeier of the Madison area is a strong supporter. How much voters will be swayed by such support is another question.
"I don't know that names matter that much," says Richard Merelman, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin. "Wisconsin voters have a history of being independent of party leadership and unwilling to accept endorsements."
"This state is very susceptible to momentum, so I think a lot will depend on what happens in New York and Connecticut," comments Angie Martin of the Wisconsin Kennedy campaign staff.