Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin is facing a recall election and democratic challenger and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, left, before the start of the May 25 debate in Milwaukee. (Darren Hauck/Reuters)

MILWAUKEE—Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), facing a recall election on June 5, came under sharp attack here Friday night from his Democratic rival, who accused the governor of creating a political civil war in the state and of seeking to become “a right-wing rock star” at the expense of the people he serves.

Walker, whose first term has been marked by protests and controversy, countered the attacks from Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett by saying the budgetary and collective bargaining changes he pushed through the state legislature last year were working and that the election of his Democratic opponent threatened to plunge the state back into political turmoil.

Walker and Barrett met for the first of two televised debates in advance of the June recall election and it was the challenger who took an aggressive stance from the opening statements to the end of the one-hour session.

Barrett accused Walker of deliberately seeking to blow up the state, particularly by eliminating most collective bargaining rights for public employee unions. “Scott, you started this by saying that you were going to drop the bomb… and that you would use divide-and-conquer as your strategy to go after the workers, and that you would use a budget bill to tear this state apart.”

Walker countered with a forceful defense of his actions. “What I’ve done is stand up and take on the powerful special interests,” he said. “That’s why they poured money in since last year. That’s why they brought money and bodies into the state, because I did something that hadn’t been done before … I put the power back in the hands of taxpayers.”

At another point, Barrett said Walker had divided the state unlike any other leader in the state’s history. “Scott Walker started this civil war.” he said. “I will end this civil war.”

Though Walker offered no apologies for the reforms he pushed through, which led to huge protests on the state Capitol grounds and a walkout among Democratic legislators, the governor acknowledged anew that he regretted the way he had gone about making the changes.

“Looking back, without a doubt I’d change how we did things,” he said. He added that Wisconsin voters “like the results but they just wish we’d done it differently.”

“We’re turning things around,” he said at another point. “We’re moving in the right direction.”

Barrett challenged Walker on a series of issues, including calling on him to release more information related to a criminal probe into activities in Walker’s office when he was Milwaukee County executive. Several former Walker aides are under indictment.

Walker said he is a person of high integrity and that he is not a target of the investigation. “This investigation started because my office asked for it nearly two years ago,” he said, adding that his Democratic opponents were using the issue as a distraction “because they’re desperate.”