The Wisconsin battle has laid bare fundamental differences in vision between the two parties, and reflects the broader national debate at the heart of the gridlock in Washington and the developing presidential campaign. Republicans want to shrink government, viewing the public sector as a hindrance to job growth. Democrats see a role for government to stimulate growth and promote economic fairness for the middle class, and as a safety net.
It began in early 2011 when Walker - facing budget deficits akin to those confronting states such as Pennsylvania and New Jersey - pushed through legislation taking away collective bargaining rights for most public workers and cut their taxpayer-funded pension and health benefits. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the Democratic nominee to replace him, is counting on the anger that caused thousands to occupy the state capitol and gather 900,000 signatures on recall petitions.
With his tough stance against public-sector unions, Walker has become a hero to the right, and has raised and spent at least $31 million for the recall battle, in six-figure chunks, from around the country. An additional $16 million has come from groups such as the Republican Governors Association and Americans for Prosperity, the group backed by the billionaire industrialist brothers David and Charles Koch.
"I'm a Barrett person," said Larry "Shooter" Danz, 66, vowing to vote for the Democrat on Tuesday.
"Walker was sneaky, dropping those changes through with no warning," said Danz, a retired heating contractor who runs a small shop fixing lawn mowers in this valley farming community, named for the rich glacier-deposited soil here. "The governor is bullheaded," he said. "Republicans don't worry about the middle class; they just want the wealthy to get wealthier."
Democratic groups, notably unions, have poured $14 million into the recall fight, according to the watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Barrett has raised $4.2 million.
"The recall is the stupidest thing the state has ever done," said June Ziebarth, 45, the cafe's manager. She said Walker had won his election in 2010 fair and square. "He hasn't done anything criminal," Ziebarth said. "He should be able to finish his four-year term."
Walker is only the third governor in the nation's history to face a recall. The first was in North Dakota in 1921, and California Gov. Gray Davis lost a 2003 recall and was succeeded by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The latest independent polls give Walker a narrow lead, though Republicans are more enthusiastic about turning out. Both parties say their internal polls indicate a supertight race, and they have been cranking up the machinery to get out the vote. Experts are predicting a turnout as high as 65 percent.
The high national stakes and the money awash in Wisconsin has subjected voters to an unbelievable barrage of television advertising, stuffed mailboxes and constantly ringing phones.
One Luckenbooth's customer said she was getting three robocalls a day. One had an East Coast accent. "I got one yesterday: 'Hi, this is Gov. Chris Christie. . . . ' I just hung up. 'Beep,' " she said.
She declined to give her name, saying her husband worked for state government. She said she did not like the way Walker has alienated people and divided the state but was not sure Barrett would be better.
The campaign has broadened to issues beyond the initial question of public-employee costs and rights that started the fight. Barrett is pointing to a federal corruption investigation that has ensnared some of Walker's top aides from his days as Milwaukee County executive. Democrats are demanding that the governor release his private e-mails with those aides; he has refused and has established a legal-defense fund.
Meanwhile, Walker blames Barrett for many of Milwaukee's problems - taxes and fees have gone up on the mayor's watch, and unemployment has jumped. He also accuses Barrett of having violent crimes underreported.
"I'm just so tired of all the mudslinging," said Ziebarth. "When the ads come on, I just mute the TV."
Organized labor has a lot at stake in the recall, drawing volunteers and cash from all over the nation, mobilizing 30,000 volunteers.
Michael Podhorzer, political director of the national AFL-CIO, said in an interview that it was distressing to see other issues crowding out collective bargaining rights, and that a Walker win could encourage other governors to target those rights as well.
On the other hand, he sees value in Wisconsin as a dress rehearsal for national battles with the likes of Republican strategist Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS group.
"It's been a good kind of dry run for building the activist base we're going to need to go against Crossroads and the other Republican groups who just announced they're going to spend $1 billion on the presidential election," Podhorzer said. "We're accomplishing a lot."
One of those activists is Patti Clark-Stojke, a unionized public-school speech pathologist from Appleton, who circulated recall petitions and has been working at a local phone bank for Barrett's effort.
She said she believes Walker's agenda is to turn more of public education over to private interests. "I fear what is going to happen as the virus spreads," Clark-Stojke, who works with special-needs students, said. "We're going to do it for Wisconsin and for our country, because workers are under assault. This is happening everywhere."
Brad Todd, a Washington-based GOP strategist who has worked extensively in Wisconsin, said the battle would sharpen his side, too, equipping Republicans to take a run at the state's 10 electoral votes this fall because Democrats have been "branded" profligate spenders and Republicans the party of fiscal restraint.
"That kind of dichotomy sets up very well for a Mitt Romney-vs.-Barack Obama race," Todd said. "The president's biggest weakness with independents is on spending issues. He has always struggled in jurisdictions where guys go to work with their names on their shirts."
John Safar says he's seen his property taxes fall for the first time in his memory - down about 10 percent from last year - because the changes Walker pushed have reduced school district costs.
"They'd been going up every year," said Safar, 77, a retired electrical engineer in Menomonee Falls, north of Milwaukee. "I'm not against the unions, but I feel they have gone overboard. Walker restored some balance."
Even some teachers support the Walker plan. Laura Morrissette said she was fine with paying more toward her benefits and retirement, adding that reducing costs for taxpayers could keep prevent cutbacks in the schools.
Her district in Oak Creek is laying off teachers. She was at a tea party rally Saturday in Caledonia, and is backing Walker.
"He's bringing jobs back and doing what he said he would do, in balancing the budget," Morrissette said. "It's honorable."
She is eager for the arguments and the constant campaign - Tuesday is the seventh election in Wisconsin since 2010 because of earlier recalls of legislators - to just end.
"The fighting has got to stop," she said. "We have to be able to work together as a state and a country."
Contact Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or firstname.lastname@example.org or @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.philly.com/bigtent.