Mitt Romney claimed a significant boost to his hopes of taking the White House from US President Barack Obama yesterday after the Republicans won a key election seen as a referendum on his policies for kick-starting the US economy.
Mr Romney's supporters hailed the seven-point victory for Scott Walker, the firebrand governor of the midwestern state of Wisconsin, as a "disaster" for the president and an endorsement of Republican calls to slash government spending.
The Wisconsin election was triggered after local labour unions collected a million signatures to protest against Mr Walker's austerity programme, which cut pension benefits and other entitlements and successfully made up a $3.8bn (€3bn) projected shortfall in the state budget.
Mr Romney, recently confirmed as the Republican presidential nominee, said the result in Wisconsin would "echo beyond the borders" of the state, which was won by Mr Obama by 14 points in 2008 but was now "in play", according to Republican strategists.
"Tonight voters said 'no' to the tired, liberal ideas of yesterday, and 'yes' to fiscal responsibility and a new direction," said Mr Romney, setting out the ideological divide on the economy that is shaping the debate in the run-up to November's general election.
Addressing cheering supporters in Waukesha, Mr Walker, who is fast becoming a hero of the Republican Right, said his triumph showed how voters craved a leader who could "stand up and make the tough decisions".
Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential candidate in 2008, said the Wisconsin vote was a ringing endorsement of conservative economic austerity medicine, which she contrasted with Democrat plans to increase government spending and investment.
Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, said the Democrat defeat was "an absolute disaster" for Mr Obama.
"After yesterday's victory, Republicans have the infrastructure and enthusiasm that will help us defeat President Obama in Wisconsin," he wrote in a campaign memo. "In that respect, it was a great 'dry run'."
Republicans also taunted Mr Obama for failing to campaign in person in Wisconsin after polls last week showed that Democrats were likely to lose the vote.
"Wisconsin Democrats will now look to President Obama and ask, 'Why did you abandon us?'," said Mr Priebus, adding gleefully: "Let the in-fighting begin."
Democrats sought comfort in exit polls that showed voters saying they would support Mr Obama over Mr Romney by nine points, according to a ABC News. David Axelrod, senior strategist in the Obama campaign said the polls "raised big questions" for Mr Romney, a relative moderate and stilted campaigner who has failed to capture the imagination of the Republican grassroots in the manner of Mr Walker.
They also pointed to the vast gap in funding, driven by out-of-state contributions from big ticket Republican donors.
Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, played down the significance of the Republican win.
"What you had was an incumbent governor in a repeat election that he had won once, in which he outspent his challenger by a magnitude of seven or eight to one," he said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)