ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Wisconsin is a prime battleground state in this year's presidential election. Republicans hope the pick of native son Paul Ryan as the 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 in a blowout last time by 14 points. And a run of Wisconsin polls this week shows him widening his lead over Mitt Romney.
Our co-host, Melissa Block, is in Wisconsin, talking to voters about their choices and their mood.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Forgive me the metaphor, but if politics is really a big circus...
STEPHEN FREESE: Absolutely, it's just going from one big top to another.
BLOCK: Then we not stop at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, home to the Ringling Brothers? I'm talking with Stephen Freese, the executive director. Freese tells me he's a Romney supporter; thinks his business background will help jumpstart the stalled economy. He says the summer drought has really hurt here. With gas prices up, at Circus World attendance is down and those who do come are cautious.
FREESE: We see them spending much more time buying the necessities then the extras. 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.
BLOCK: Baraboo is in Sauk County in south-central Wisconsin, which voted for Barack Obama by a 22-point margin but then flipped, voted for Republican Scott Walker for governor and this year voted against his recall.
(SOUNDBITE OF A BELL)
BLOCK: In downtown Baraboo, the Wednesday morning farmer's market is in full swing, small stands filled with squash and sunflowers, potatoes and pickles.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Morning.
MAURY GURGEL: Morning, how are you?
BLOCK: Can I ask for some cucumbers?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Sure.
GURGEL: All righty. A little windy and chilly out there this morning.
BLOCK: Maury Gurgel farms near Reedsburg, Wisconsin.
GURGEL: Thank you very much.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Thanks.
GURGEL: Enjoy them. Have a good day today.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All right.
BLOCK: His big issue: health insurance. He says the cost to cover him and his wife is punishing.
GURGEL: 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 $1000 a month on health care premiums. We're going to be going without it pretty soon, probably.
BLOCK: You're going to be dropping your health insurance?
GURGEL: Probably have to. We can't keep, you know, like I said, we've had to spend all of our retirement savings just to keep it going.
BLOCK: 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. I find Mary Keeser shopping at the farmer's market. She's an Obama supporter and a nurse.
MARY KEESER: Let's have the same health care that the senators and legislature has. You know, 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 that on a daily basis. So...
BLOCK: What do you think about how President Obama has done over the last four years?
KEESER: He walked into a mess. He can't solve that in four years. 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.
HIEDI ACCOLA: Oh, 9.80 total.
BLOCK: Heidi Accola runs a one-acre organic farm with her husband. She's a solid Democrat, an Obama backer. He is a staunch Republican and she says he'll vote for Romney.
ACCOLA: We try not to talk politics 'cause it gets so heated.
ACCOLA: We have very opposing political views and we really just try not to go there.
BLOCK: And we hear this a lot here, everywhere we go, that emotions are still extremely raw after the bitter fight over the public unions here in Wisconsin, and the unsuccessful vote to recall Republican Governor Scott Walker.
A few tables down, I find Deb Kozlowski-Brylla setting up beautiful strawberries. She is sick of politics and she says that bruising recall battle didn't help.
DEB KOZLOWSKI-BRYLLA: This will probably be the first year I will not vote...
KOZLOWSKI-BRYLLA: ...in my lifetime, as far as I can remember.
BLOCK: Why is that?
KOZLOWSKI-BRYLLA: Because I am really disappointed in the parties, both parties, all parties. I think political parties are ruining the United States. We are no longer stand for what you believe in. We stand for a party and I don't believe that. So I am not going to vote for anybody.
BLOCK: 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.
BOB GREENWOOD: I think the President Obama is doing a terrible job on the economy. And Romney, I think is not my first choice but I'm going to vote for him. I would rather have seen Mike Huckabee, to be honest with you. But Romney will be my vote.
BLOCK: His friend, Harold Heiser, a Vietnam veteran, chimes in with what's on his mind.
HAROLD HEISER: I think we should quit giving weapons to other countries 'cause they turn around and fight against us. I mean, they're burning our flag. When is it going to stop? There ain't enough love in this world.
BLOCK: What about your choices in November? Are you thinking much about the presidential election?
HEISER: Mitt Romney has got a lot of good things.
BLOCK: What about President Obama? What do you think?
HAROLD HISER: He said change. I haven't seen any change. The only change is more unemployment and more debt.
(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE ENGINE)
BLOCK: We end our day in Baraboo, Wisconsin outside Blaine's Farm and Fleet, a megastore selling farm equipment, hunting gear - a lot of everything. Rick Sherman is heading to his bright yellow pickup. He is a Republican, 98 percent behind Mitt Romney, he says. And 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.
RICK SHERMAN: 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. I said, really? And then you go to the old people's house and grandma and grandpa are going, okay, which med do I take? Which one do I skimp on because I don't have money for it?
BLOCK: And then, paving contractor Chris Butler waves us over to talk. He says he sees a down mood and wonders whether politics is to blame?
CHRIS BUTLER: Walking around the store in there, nobody's smiling, nobody seems to be happy. Maybe that's why everybody's so in the mulligrubs. They're frowning. I don't know. Maybe everybody's got politics on the mind.
BUTLER: Yeah, the 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.
BLOCK: In my conversations in Baraboo, Wisconsin, 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.
SIEGEL: That's our co-host, Melissa Block, reporting this week from Wisconsin. And in case you're wondering about a word you just heard, mulligrubs, well Melissa was, too. I was, too. The Dictionary of American Regional English describes it as a condition of despondency or ill temper, a vague or imaginary un-wellness. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.