Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, right, who is facing a recall election, talks with Democratic challenger and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett before the start of Friday’s debate in Milwaukee, Wis. (DARREN HAUCK/REUTERS)

Evan Bradtke, a 20-year-old college student, spends time these days working out of a small, windowless room in a nondescript suite of offices a few miles outside Madison, Wis. Hour after hour he calls voters, urging them to turn out on June 5 to support embattled Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

Walker made national headlines last year when he eliminated most collective-bargaining rights for public employee unions, triggering huge protests. The fight put friends, neighbors and family members on opposite sides and left the state as polarized as any in the nation. It will culminate in next month’s recall election, only the third for a sitting governor in U.S. history.

But there is more at stake on June 5 than the question of whether Walker remains in office or is replaced by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. To Bradtke, saving Walker’s job is a crucial step toward making Wisconsin a competitive battleground in November and electing a Republican president who deals with budgetary issues nationally the way Walker has in Wisconsin.

The recall contest “is the second most important election in the country this year,” he said.

Whether Wisconsin is competitive in November could make a major difference in the presidential campaign. If Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee, can win one or more of the industrial states — Wisconsin or Michigan or Pennsylvania — that have consistently voted Democratic in presidential races, he would have a much easier path to the 270 electoral votes needed to become president.

At first blush, Wisconsin may look daunting for Romney. The state has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan three decades ago. But that is a deceptive indicator of the state’s politics overall. Four years ago, Barack Obama coasted to victory here by a margin of 14 points, but George W. Bush nearly won the state in 2000 and 2004. And Republicans scored major victories in 2010, taking over the governor’s office and a Senate seat.

Karl Rove, Bush’s top political adviser in both those campaigns, argues that the results of Walker’s recall election and the margin of the vote will offer the first genuine clues as to whether Wisconsin’s political environment is similar to four years ago or has reverted to the nail-biter status of 2000 and 2004. “This will give a very clear indication of whether Wisconsin and the industrial Midwest will be up for grabs this year,” Rove said.

Echoes of ’04?

Mike Tate, the Wisconsin Democratic chairman, said he remains confident the grass-roots energy that triggered the recall can carry Barrett to victory. But he does not need to wait for the results of the recall election to predict that the state will be a battleground this fall, despite what happened here in 2008.

“I think this is Kerry-Bush Wisconsin ’04,” he said, referring to the presidential contest that ended up with Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) winning the state by just two-tenths of a percentage point — 11,000 votes out of 3 million cast.

“This electorate was never as blue as it was in ’08 and never as red as it was in ’10,” Tate added. “Those were dynamic swings that were subject to national momentum. This is now and I think will remain a state that is very, very closely divided.”

Republicans are feeling confident about Walker’s prospects. Most public polls over the past two weeks have shown Walker with a lead of between four and six percentage points. In the past few days, Democrats have released results from two internal polls, showing the race in the two-to-three-point range. A Republican strategist countered by saying that internal polls by the Republican Governors Association show the same margin for Walker as the earlier public polls.

The two candidates held their first debate Friday night. Barrett played the aggressor, accusing Walker of deliberately dividing the state for political gain, saying the governor had started a political civil war by targeting public employee unions. Walker said he had taken on special interests on behalf of the taxpayers and said his rivals are trying to punish him through the recall election.

Walker enjoys a huge financial advantage over Barrett. As of the beginning of May, Walker had raised $25 million, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks campaign finances. Much of Walker’s money was raised in sizable contributions beyond those normally allowed, because of differences in state laws concerning recall elections. He had spent about $20 million of that.

Republicans have treated the recall election as if it were part of its national effort in 2012. The Republican Governors Association has spent more than $8 million since March. Walker has been or will be joined on the campaign trail by a string of fellow governors, including Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, the association’s chairman; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the group’s vice chairman; Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal; South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley; and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty.

The Wisconsin Republican Party, with assistance from the Republican National Committee, has made more than 2.5 million calls identifying voters. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, a former Wisconsin Republican chairman, said the party has “done more work in this state than in any state in the country. That’s all going to help us in November.”

The Democratic Governors Association has spent more than $3 million to help Barrett. But in contrast with the GOP effort, the past two weeks have produced grumbling that national Democrats are not doing enough to help defeat Walker. As a result, the Democratic National Committee sent out a fundraising appeal for Barrett and President Obama’s campaign publicly announced that it has invested about $1 million in its grass-roots organization in the state that can be tapped for Barrett on June 5.

Tate argued that the race will turn on who can get their voters to the polls in a state where undecided voters are only a tiny percentage of the electorate. If Barrett was to win, it would be a significant blow to the GOP. But Democrats recognize the implications for November of a clear win for Walker.

Recall risks for Democrats

Many national Democrats, including some Obama advisers and some national union officials, were unenthusiastic about trying to recall Walker this year. They saw Walker as weakened by the political turbulence he touched off and therefore someone who would be vulnerable in a 2014 reelection campaign. They also worried that a recall campaign five months before the November election would be a hugely costly undertaking. They feared that it could leave their forces exhausted and, if Walker were to win, demoralized heading into November.

But the decision turned out not to be in their control, nor was it even in the control of Wisconsin Democratic or union leaders, according to multiple sources at the state and national level. The same grass-roots activists who ringed the State Capitol in the dead of winter to protest Walker’s budget and labor policies forced the recall to happen.

“Everybody in this town was saying, ‘I don’t want to do this,’ ” said a Washington-based Democratic strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But the cows were out of the barn.”

An Obama adviser, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss internal deliberations, said: “There was such energy there. When you say you live by grass-roots politics, you’ve got to stand by that.” But he said it was “always the concern” that Republicans would use the recall campaign to hone their lists for November.

Bruce Colburn, a vice president of the Wisconsin chapter of the Service Employees International Union, said those from outside Wisconsin do not fully understand the dynamic at work in the state, which he said is unlike any he has seen over many years. He said the petition drive alone, which produced 900,000 signatures when only 600,000 were needed, should have proved to doubters the power at the grass roots.

“This is really beyond a party, beyond a national leader, beyond any union,” he said. “This really has been a movement to resist the direction that Walker and the rest of his regime were trying to take the state of Wisconsin. . . . We’re living in a Wisconsin that’s been made over the last 18 months.”

What he describes is a Wisconsin so divided over Walker that friends and family members find themselves on opposite sides of battle and no longer talking to one another. It is a Wisconsin where small call centers, such as the one where Bradtke spends part of his week, are populated with people on both sides who feel passionately about the outcome and its implications.

To the Republicans in these offices, Walker is a hero.

“When Governor Walker wins reelection on June 5th,” Bradtke said, “it’s going to send a message that Wisconsin voters support a fiscally responsible agenda, support protecting the taxpayers and taking on the entrenched issues. . . . And that’s going to be Governor Romney’s message.”

To Democrats, he is a villain who must be stopped. In Glendale, north of Milwaukee, Democratic volunteers were working the phones one night late last week. Among them was Bruce Brewer, 57, a retired flight instructor.

He began making calls last summer for a state Senate recall election. He later worked on the petition drive to force the recall and now is working on the recall itself. He volunteers three hours a day helping mobilize the anti-Walker vote. He is as vocal in his dislike for Walker as Walker’s supporters are in their admiration for him. And, he is tired.

“Everybody is just running on vapors around here,” Brewer said. “But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

What if Walker wins?

“I’ll take a week off,” he said. “And then I’ll come back.”