(AP) - To win Wisconsin in their campaign for president, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama know they have to do well with independent-minded voters in eight counties that border Minnesota along the Mississippi River.
Voters in the area have supported Democrats at the top of the ticket, including John Kerry and Al Gore in the past two presidential races.
But they also frequently elect Republicans to serve in the state Legislature and in local offices.
They are the coveted independents. Obama will make his pitch to them at a rally Wednesday morning in downtown La Crosse.
"It seems as if Wisconsin's a toss-up state and this is a toss-up area within a toss-up state," said Joe Heim, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. "People are willing to split their ticket. They're persuadable."
The eight counties, running from where Wisconsin meets Dubuque, Iowa, north to the border with Minnesota at the Twin Cities, all went for Democrats Kerry and Gore in 2004 and 2000. Another three adjacent counties also went Democratic in both elections.
But Republicans have been elected to serve in nine of the 15 legislative districts covering the 11 counties.
The area, punctuated by rolling hills along the river, is agriculture-based and also home to large cities like La Crosse and Eau Claire. On economic issues voters there tend to be more liberal, but on social issues they're more conservative, said Republican strategist Mark Graul.
“This is a toss-up area within a toss-up state.”Political scientist Joe Heim, UW-La Crosse
"There is definitely a stronger kind of prairie populist attitude in the western part of the state that may seep over from Minnesota," said Graul, who ran President Bush's campaign in Wisconsin in 2004. "We believed on the Bush campaign that a key to winning the state was to win in western Wisconsin."
McCain realizes its importance of the area as well, said Wisconsin Republican Party executive director Mark Jefferson. It's critical for him to pick off voters from Obama in that area, even if he doesn't win all the counties along the river, Jefferson said.
"My advice to McCain is to be himself," Graul said. "He is the exact kind of maverick reformer candidate that western Wisconsin likes. I think they saw President Bush as a little bit more standard Republican and certainly John McCain isn't that."
Obama's Wisconsin spokesman Phil Walzak said independent voters are looking for a new way of doing business in Washington and that's why Obama is a better pick for western Wisconsin than McCain, who's been in Congress for 26 years.
Walzak said McCain's rhetoric of being a maverick candidate doesn't match with his record of voting with Bush 90 percent of the time.
The candidates know that they get a lot of bang for their campaigning buck in western Wisconsin, saturating media markets in two states. They can also reach into the Dubuque, Iowa, media market when farther southwest in Wisconsin.
Obama's stop Wednesday is in La Crosse. The city of about 52,000, built right on the Mississippi River with a view of battleground state Minnesota, is also home to a University of Wisconsin campus and a student population Obama has been playing well with across the country.
In August he visited Eau Claire, a city of about 65,000 located 85 miles east of the Twin Cities.
McCain's also made one general election stop in western Wisconsin, holding a women's-only business summit in the city of Hudson, which is just across the river from Minneapolis-St. Paul. He also stopped briefly in nearby Eau Claire.
Along with western Wisconsin, other swing parts of the state are Green Bay and the Fox Valley in the northeast and the suburbs of Milwaukee.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)