MILWAUKEE -- When President Bush makes a scheduled whistle-stop train trip in Wisconsin next weekend in the final hours of the presidential campaign, it will mark the fifth time he has come here in search of a relatively small prize -- only 11 electoral votes of the 270 he needs to win re-election.
The intensity of his pursuit of the Badger State, in which Vice President Dan Quayle and numerous Cabinet members have joined, is at first blush surprising.
Four years ago, he lost Wisconsin to Democrat Michael S. Dukakis. But a candidate has to go somewhere, and conditions exist here that make Wisconsin a more hopeful target than most other states in the industrial Midwest.
Here in Wisconsin, the president trails Gov. Bill Clinton by only 42 percent to 36 percent, with 15 percent for independent Ross Perot in the latest Milwaukee Journal poll. The state's unemployment rate is about 2 percent below the national average, and the economy is better than in nearby industrial states.
That situation, says Bush's Wisconsin campaign director, state Assemblyman Scott Jensen, is the product of a state administration under Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, one of the president's earliest supporters. Wisconsin has been a laboratory for the sort of government Bush proposes for a second term.
In the recession of 1982, Jensen says, the state lost much of its manufacturing base. But Wisconsin rebounded, he says, because Thompson "made the state extremely business-friendly," with incentives that helped achieve a shift to other industries with technological components. As a result, he says, Wisconsin now ranks near the top among the states in job creation.
At the same time, Thompson -- wielding his veto even more successfully than has Bush -- got two programs through the Democratic-controlled state legislature that carry out Bush's preachings of a tougher posture on welfare.
The first, called "learnfare," provides for docking welfare checks of families whose children don't attend school regularly. The second, labeled "bridefare" by critics, cuts benefits in half for the first child a welfare family has after entering the welfare rolls, and cuts off the full benefit for any children born in that family thereafter.
Because Wisconsin has one of the country's most generous welfare programs, Jensen says, it has become a "welfare magnet" for poor families from as close as Chicago and as far away as Mississippi.
For that reason, it has also enacted legislation limiting, for the first six months, payment of benefits to new migrants to the amount they were receiving in the state they left.
All these innovations, Jensen says, are popular with Wisconsin voters proud of having high Medicaid and welfare benefits but "sick and tired of paying for them."
This attitude in turn makes voters here highly sensitive to Bush's charge that Clinton's election would mean much higher taxes not only for the rich but for the middle class as well.
Clinton's state chairman, Jeff Neubauer, says the low unemployment rate masks the fact that many manufacturing workers have had to take low-paying service jobs with inadequate health benefits.
What has saved the state's economy, he says, is the fact it is export-oriented and thus benefits from the softness of the dollar abroad. But Jon Kaplan, the state campaign director, says family income in Wisconsin has dropped $2,900 a year under Bush in a squeeze on the middle class.
Kaplan is encouraged by a large and enthusiastic Clinton rally in a downtown Milwaukee arena the other night at which the Democratic nominee talked up the party's senatorial nominee, state Sen. Russ Feingold, and other Democratic candidates who flocked around him. It was a sign that they see strong coattails streaming from the man who heads the ticket -- unlike 1988.
Both camps acknowledge that Perot has made inroads here since his return to the campaign. Jensen says his internal polls indicate Perot is taking two votes from Clinton for every one from Bush, but Neubauer notes that Clinton has maintained a steady lead, suggesting Perot takes from each of them about equally.
In 1988, Dukakis poured heavy resources into Wisconsin in what looked like an effort to salvage what he could. Four years later, Bush appears to be doing much the same thing.