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Kevin Liptak CNN
Published: 01 June 2012

(CNN) -- Speaking before an animated crowd in Milwaukee Friday, former President Bill Clinton decried the partisan atmosphere he said was responsible for the bitter recall vote in Wisconsin, saying the Republican candidate had struck upon a "divide and conquer" policy to win political points.

"This is a big deal, and it is not about Republicans and Democrats, or traditional conservatives and liberals," Clinton said, taking aim at Republican Gov. Scott Walker for dividing his state after a bitter fight over collective bargaining rights for union workers. Clinton was campaigning for the Democratic candidate, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

Walker and GOP allies in the Wisconsin state legislature voted in January 2011 to limit raises for public employees, except police and firefighters, to the rate of inflation. They also moved to bar unions from deducting dues from workers' paychecks.

That bill was signed into law in March, following protests at the state's Capitol.

Unions argued that collective bargaining -- a process of negotiations meant to regulate working conditions -- has served to protect their wages and health care, as well as enforce workplace safety and serve as a means to arbitrate employee grievances.

Walker, along with other supporters of the measure, asserted union contracts constrain efforts to address Wisconsin's swelling deficit.

Clinton said on Friday the fight over whether to recall Walker was "America's battleground."

"Here's what I want to tell you," Clinton said. "I think I know a little bit about what would bring America back, what would bring economic recovery, what would enable us to have widely spread prosperity. And I'll tell you, if you go anywhere in America today, there are a lot of places that are already back. They are dramatically different but hey all have one thing in common. They are involved in creative cooperation, not constant conflict."

Clinton framed Tuesday's vote as a decision between a collaborative approach favored by Democrats, and hostile confrontation favored by Republicans.

"Everyday when a child in Wisconsin says the pledge of allegiance it is a rebuke to the far right, winner take all, take no prisoners, divide and conquer, constant conflict philosophy of government," Clinton said. "You get a chance, a second chance to do that."

If Democratic voters don't show up at the polls, Clinton said, naysayers would portray the result as a mandate to stem collective bargaining rights in other states.

"I can just hear it now," Clinton said. "All those people that poured all this money in Wisconsin, if you don't show up and vote will say 'See, we got 'em now. We are finally going to break every union in America. We are going to break every government in America. We are going to stop worrying about the middle class.'"

"You tell them no," Clinton said. "You tell them Wisconsin has never been about that, never will be about that."

Clinton will be the most high profile Democratic surrogate to travel to Wisconsin to campaign for Barrett. As of now, there are no plans for President Barack Obama or Vice President Joe Biden to travel to Wisconsin prior to next Tuesday's election. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the DNC Chair, and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, the chair of the Democratic Governors Association, both campaigned in Wisconsin Wednesday.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is slated to team up with Walker in the state Friday. A number of high profile Republicans, including Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey, Bob McDonnell of Virginia, and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, as well as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida have all recently campaigned in Wisconsin with Walker.

In his remarks, Clinton didn't directly reference remarks made Thursday on CNN's "Piers Morgan Tonight" in which he labeled presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney's business career as "sterling."

At the top of his speech, however, Clinton made light of his position as former leader of the free world.

"Just in case you think this was set up by somebody else, these are my notes of what I was going to say to you," Clinton said, holding up a few sheets of paper. "The great thing of not being president is that you can say whatever you want. Nobody has to care anymore, but you can say it."

CNN Political Editor Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.

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