Wisconsin is a prime battleground state in this year's presidential election.
Republicans hope the pick of native son Paul Ryan as their vice presidential nominee will bolster their chances to turn the state red in November. Wisconsin hasn't voted for a Republican for president since 1984. Barack Obama won the state by a blowout 14 points in 2008. And a run of Wisconsin polls this week shows him widening his lead over Mitt Romney.
So what do Wisconsin voters have to say about their choices — and their mood?
If politics is really a big circus — forgive the metaphor — then why not start talking to voters at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wis., home to the Ringling brothers?
Stephen Freese, the executive director, says he's a Romney supporter. He thinks Romney's business background will help jump-start the stalled economy.
The summer drought has really hurt here, Freese says. With gas prices up, attendance is down at Circus World — and those who do come are cautious.
"We see them spending much more time buying the necessities than the extras," says Freese, "so the gift shop isn't as busy as the restaurant, because they just aren't able to purchase everything they used to do on a credit card. They know they ultimately have to pay for it, and they're concerned about the stability of their job."
Baraboo is in Sauk County in south-central Wisconsin, which voted for Obama by a 22-point margin. But then it flipped, going for Republican Scott Walker for governor in 2010 and voting against his recall this year.
Stretching For Health Insurance
In downtown Baraboo, the Wednesday morning farmers market is in full swing. Small stands are filled with squash and sunflowers, potatoes and pickles.
Maury Gurgel farms near Reedsburg, Wis. His big issue? Health insurance. He says the cost to cover him and his wife is punishing.
"I'm a little older, and we're spending every bit of our savings to buy health insurance. It's taken a toll on our business, too. I can't afford to hire people if I have to spend $1,000 a month on health care premiums," he says. "We're going to be going without [insurance] pretty soon, probably. ... We've had to spend all of our retirement savings just to keep it going."
Gurgel says what he'd really like to see is a single-payer system, like Canada's.
Over and over in Baraboo, I hear people talk about health care — how good insurance is out of their reach.
Mary Keeser, who is shopping at the farmers market, is a nurse and an Obama supporter.
"Let's have the same health care that the senators and legislature has," she says. "If they want to make it equal, let's do that. I mean, we'll have excellent health care. But people that have insurance don't understand people that don't have insurance, you know. And I see it on a daily basis."
Keeser says Obama "walked into a mess."
"You can't solve that in four years," she adds. "And I think given, you know, a few more years, things will straighten out a bit. But I think it's going to take maybe a generation to straighten out the mess the Republicans got us in."
Heidi Accola runs a 1-acre organic farm with her husband. She's a solid Democrat, an Obama backer. He's a staunch Republican who will vote for Romney, she says.
"We try not to talk politics because it gets so heated," she says with a laugh. "We have very opposing political views, so we really just try not to go there."
In Wisconsin, emotions are still extremely raw after the bitter fight over public unions and the unsuccessful vote to recall Walker.
A few tables down, Deb Kozlowski-Brylla is setting out beautiful strawberries. She is sick of politics. She says the bruising recall battle didn't help.
"This will probably be the first year I will not vote," she says. "Because I am really disappointed in the parties — both parties, all parties. I think political parties are ruining the United States. We ... no longer stand for what you believe in; we stand for a party. And I don't believe that. So I'm not going to vote for anybody."
Another sign of that sharp divide over the recall election: We spot a car with a bumper sticker that says, "Recall Santa! I didn't get what I wanted!" It belongs to Bob Greenwood, who's in the Viking Village market, having coffee with his buddies.
"I think that President Obama is doing a terrible job on the economy," he says. "Romney, I think, is not my first choice, but I'm going to vote for him. I would rather have seen [former Arkansas Gov.] Mike Huckabee, to be honest with you, but Romney will be my vote."
His friend Harold Heiser, a Vietnam veteran, chimes in with what's on his mind: "I think we should quit giving weapons to other countries, because they turn around and fight against us. I mean, they're burning our flag. When's it going to stop? There ain't enough love in this world."
When it comes to his choices for November, Heiser says Romney's "got a lot of good things." As for Obama: "He said change. I haven't seen any change. The only change is more unemployment and more debt."
In The 'Mulligrubs'
We end our day in Baraboo outside Blain's Farm & Fleet — a megastore selling farm equipment, hunting gear, a lot of everything.
Rick Sherman is heading to his bright yellow pickup. He's a Republican and 98 percent behind Romney, he says. He finds some truth in Romney's message about too much entitlement. As a paramedic, he says he sees people taking advantage of the system.
"Nothing [is] as frustrating as going in and a lady's got three or four or five kids, and she's pregnant with another one. You want to say: Do you realize how you get pregnant? And she's like, 'Well, you know, I get BadgerCare and Medicare for all my kids, and the more I have, I get more money for it,' " he says. "And then you go to the old people's house, where Grandma and Grandpa are going, 'OK, which med do I take? Which one do I skimp on because I don't have money for it?' "
Then, paving contractor Chris Butler waves us over to talk. He says he sees a down mood, and wonders whether politics is to blame.
"Walking around the store in there, nobody's smiling. Nobody seems to be happy," he says. "Maybe that's why everybody's so in the mulligrubs, frowning. I don't know, maybe everybody's got politics on the mind."
Mulligrubs? "That's something my uncle always said: 'Don't be in the mulligrubs.' I really don't know what the mulligrubs are, but I don't think it's good," Butler says.
For the record, the Dictionary of American Regional English describes the "mulligrubs" as "a condition of despondency or ill temper; a vague or imaginary unwellness."
In my conversations in Baraboo, Wis., I didn't find any of those elusive undecided voters. And I didn't talk with anybody brimming with passion about their candidate, either.
I found many people deeply pained by the divide between political extremes, hoping for more dialogue and wishing they felt better about this election.