MADISON, Wis. -- Republican Gov. Scott Walker's chief Democratic rivals took turns bashing him during a debate Friday over Wisconsin's stagnant economy and for creating the starkest political divide the state has ever seen.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk have emerged as the two front-runners for the Democratic nomination to challenge Walker in a June 5 general recall election. The two appeared at Wisconsin Public Television's Madison studios for their last debate before Tuesday's primary.
Democrats are looking to boot the governor and five other Republicans out of office that day as payback for passing Walker's contentious law stripping most public workers of nearly all their union rights. Walker has said he had to make the changes to help balance the state budget, but Democrats saw it as an all-out assault on unions, one of their key constituencies.
The Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls were careful not to jab each other too hard Friday and risk alienating each other's supporters; the nominee will need a united front going into June. Instead they spent most of the evening trotting out well-rehearsed talking points against Walker.
Barrett and Falk kicked off the proceedings by taking the governor to task over a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report released last week that found Wisconsin lost the most jobs of any state in the country between March 2011 and March 2012.
Walker, who promised on the 2010 campaign trail to create 250,000 jobs, insists other economic indicators are positive -- Wisconsin's unemployment rate in March was the lowest it's been in four years -- and says people need to be patient. But Barrett accused the governor of caring more about traveling around the country and parlaying his reputation as conservative superstar into loads of out-of-state campaign contributions.
"I'll stay here in Wisconsin to work and retain jobs," he said. "I won't be a rock star to the far-right movement."
Falk called Walker's record on jobs the worst in the nation.
"No one will work harder than I to get people back working," she said.
The candidates also fielded questions about how they would restore public workers' collective bargaining rights. Barrett promised to use "any vehicle I can to get to the destination," but said he'd start with a special legislative session shortly after taking office.
Falk, though, said Democrats can't bring those rights back through a bill because Republicans likely will maintain control of at least the state Assembly and block any measure. She wants to instead include bargaining rights in the next state budget and promised to veto any spending plan that falls short of restoring them.
Walker spokeswoman Ciara Matthews said in an email following the debate that the Democrats' attacks are baseless and they aren't resonating.
"We are confident the voters of Wisconsin will continue to stand with Governor Walker's plan to keep Wisconsin moving forward and against the Democrats' plans to take the state back to the failed policies of the past," she said in the statement.
State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, and Secretary of State Doug La Follette also are running for the Democratic nomination but their campaigns are starved for cash and neither has much of a chance to win the primary. They still appeared at the debate alongside Barrett and Falk.
Vinehout promised she would be a detail-oriented governor and La Follette implored people to vote for him because he lacks "high negatives" and has no special agenda.