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Obama, Scott Walker follow the same script for survival

 

The political playbook isn't a new one for an incumbent, especially one who's facing a difficult contest.

Turn the race into a choice, not a referendum; argue that progress has been made, no matter how slowly or controversially; and link your opponent to your even more unpopular predecessor.

Of course, we're talking about President Obama's campaign playbook against Mitt Romney.

But we also could be talking about Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) -- who has followed this exact same script in his recall battle against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D) that takes place on Tuesday.

While Walker couldn't be more different ideologically and stylistically from Obama, he and his allies in this recall have:
-- tried to disqualify Barrett as a suitable replacement (just like the Obama campaign has tried to do to Romney);
-- made the case that the economy has improved, even if it's been incremental (ditto Team Obama);
-- and argued that replacing Barrett with Walker would take voters back to the days of the unpopular Gov. Jim Doyle (D) administration (hello, George W. Bush).

"There's a polarized electorate for both, with the majority of people locked in. And the swing voters need to see a choice -- that benefits the incumbent," says one Democratic official who is watching both races.

"If they only see it as a referendum on performance, then the failure to change mood alone could be devastating. If they can make it about the other guy, they're OK."

Is that playbook working for Walker? A recent Marquette Law School poll finds Walker leading Barrett by seven percentage points among likely voters, 52%-45%. But Democrats point to their own internal polls showing a much closer race.

Three big differences between Walker and Obama
To be sure, there are some importance differences between Wisconsin's gubernatorial recall and November's presidential contest.

For one thing, the nature of a recall is much different than a presidential election. (That could very well explain why Obama leads Romney, 51%-43%, in that same Marquette poll -- some Democrats and pro-Obama voters, even if they don't approve of Walker's job, might not think he should be recalled from an office he won less than two years ago.)

In addition, Barrett has had very little time between winning his primary (on May 8) and this general election (June 5). By comparison, Romney has been the presumptive GOP nominee since April, giving him seven months to run a general-election race after his primary battle.

And then there's money. Walker and his allies have a sizable ad-spending advantage over Barrett and his allies, $23 million to $8.5 million, according to NBC/SMG Delta ad-buying numbers. While the Obama campaign has more money than the Romney camp, outside conservative groups will more than make up the difference.

Mike Schrimpf, communications director at the Republican Governors Association, points to another difference. "In the Walker scenarios, his advantages on the dominate issues -- taxes, spending, role of government -- all of those issues favor Gov. Walker's policies. He has taken an approach that's clearly different than President Obama."

Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski doesn't see a comparison between the Obama and Walker playbooks. "Walker is running a campaign based on his accomplishments and reforms, talking about the economy and jobs he's created, businesses that have moved into the state. Obama doesn't have a record to run on."

Choice vs. referendum
Despite the differences, the similarities in campaign strategy are striking.

Just look at the pro-Walker TV ad campaign, which has tried to paint Barrett as an unacceptable alternative. One Walker ad portrays Barrett for being soft on crime:

This two year old spent six days in intensive care after being severely beaten, but Tom Barrett’s police department didn’t consider it a violent crime. Tom Barrett claims, “Violent crime is down 15.5 percent.” But the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that hundreds of beatings, stabbings, and child abuse cases were never even counted. Violent crime in Milwaukee is up, and Tom Barrett isn’t telling the truth.

Another one hits him for being a big spender:

Tom Barrett wants to spend more than 100 million dollars on a trolley for Milwaukee.  Now that’s the kind of reckless spending that left Wisconsin with more than a 3 billion dollar deficit. 

"Things are getting better"
Walker and his allies also have pointed to signs of an improving economy -- just like Obama and his supporters have.

Consider this Walker ad, in which he looks to the camera:

I've got some bad news for Tom Barrett, but good news for Wisconsin. The government just released the new jobs numbers. And as it turns out, Wisconsin actually gained -- yes, gained -- more than 20,000 new jobs during my first year in office. Add the jobs created this office, the total goes to over 30,000.

The Republican Governors Association has aired this ad:

Since Scott Walker became governor, Wisconsin has gained over 30,000 jobs. Fact.  

But Democrats have disputed those figures. And Politifact Wisconsin says, "To reach the number, he combined two data sets - one that involves unofficial (but generally more accurate) numbers that could change in the weeks after the election; the other is volatile, but still official monthly numbers. From an accounting standpoint this would be flagged as a mistake. From a political standpoint, he is mixing and matching to present the best possible view."

Tying your opponent to the old regime
And Walker and his supporters have tried to link Barrett to the previous governor, Jim Doyle (D) -- just like the Obama campaign has stressed that Romney's policies are no different than George W. Bush's.

Take this RGA ad, for example:

Where would you go if you could travel in a time machine? How about back to 2010 to Gov. Doyle’s administration? I didn’t think so. Under Jim Doyle, unemployment in Wisconsin went up 37%. Taxes went up $1.6 billion. That’s exactly what would happen if we made Tom Barrett governor.

There are additional similarities, too: Both Walker and Obama have passionate bases, and they have well-financed campaign machines.

If Walker prevails on Tuesday -- and Democrats are quick to point out  that this race is far from over -- then he'll have this playbook to thank.

But then the question becomes: Will it work for Obama in November? And who is paying more attention to it? The Obama campaign or the Romney campaign?

NBC's Katherine Faulders contributed to this story.