David Schaper

Democratic Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin's sexual orientation was never really a factor in her victorious campaign against Republican former Gov. Tommy Thompson. Advocates for gay rights see that as a watershed moment for the movement.

Baldwin won a seat many thought she couldn't, defeating one of the state's most successful politicians in the process. The celebration Tuesday night in Madison was euphoric.

The enthusiastic crowd was never louder than when Baldwin acknowledged making history.

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One of the most bitter congressional races is in the suburbs of Chicago, where controversial freshman Republican Joe Walsh is fighting to keep a seat he was actually drawn out of.

The Tea Party favorite's bombastic rants frequently get him into trouble, even with members of his own party, and Walsh is facing a tough Democratic opponent in Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth, who lost both of her legs in combat.

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And I'm Robert Siegel. Last night's second presidential debate produced more friction and fireworks than the first, and that didn't seem to bother a group of voters in a state that knows a lot about political bickering, Wisconsin. NPR's David Schaper watched the debate with roughly a dozen Democrats and Republicans who have dedicated themselves to bridging their state's political divide.

On her 22nd birthday this summer, Sarah Wagner of suburban Wheaton, Ill., who describes herself as a huge fan of the Chicago Cubs, opened an email to find an incredible surprise — a recorded message from her favorite Cubs player:

"Hey, Sarah! Kerry Wood here! Thanks for your message and I hope you're having a great summer!"

"When I heard for the first time, I instantly smiled," says Wagner. "I think my hands probably went over like my mouth, like, 'Oh my gosh, Kerry Wood is talking to me, even though he has no idea who I am!' "

One of the most important seats in the battle for control of the U.S. Senate is in Wisconsin, where Democrat Herb Kohl is retiring. Early polls showed popular former Gov. Tommy Thompson might easily flip the seat to the GOP, but he's now trailing Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin. It's a race that's going down to the wire in this almost evenly divided state.

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And now to Wisconsin, where people are still livid. It's been two days since a blown call by the NFL's replacement referees cost the Green Bay Packers a win against the Seattle Seahawks. Wisconsinites of opposing political persuasions were briefly united in their anger. But in a state with a Republican governor best known for attacking unions, even the issue of replacement refs is becoming a political football.

Here's NPR's David Schaper.

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OK. So, all those political ads are on the air. Last night, the candidates themselves were on the air. They did interviews on the same CBS program, "60 Minutes." NPR's David Schaper was watching.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: After a week in which his campaign was on the defensive, Romney told "60 Minutes" he remains confident.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")

MITT ROMNEY: I'm going to win this thing.

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This summer's drought is not helping the wildfire situation, and the drought is also deeply harming the nation's agricultural economy. Parched lands extend from California to Indiana, and from Texas to South Dakota, impacting everyone from farmers and ranchers to barge operators and commodity traders.

As NPR's David Schaper reports, some farmers are getting close to calling it quits.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Looking over his small, 100-acre farm near South Union, Kentucky, Rich Vernon doesn't like what he sees.

This summer's drought continues to wilt and bake crops from Ohio to the Great Plains and beyond. Under a baking, late-afternoon sun just outside of the tiny east-central Illinois town of Thawville, John Hildenbrand walks down his dusty, gravel driveway toward one of his corn fields.

"You can see on the outer edge, these are a lot better-looking ears on the outside rows. Of course, it's not near as hot as it is inside the field," he says.

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Whenever a car or truck turns off busy Channahon Road onto the long drive to the Caterpillar plant in Joliet, Ill., a handful of union workers on a picket line scream, "Scab! Scab!!"

As strikers try shaming the few workers and managers who cross the line, even a clearly marked sandwich delivery car gets shouted down.

Approximately 800 workers at this plant, which makes hydraulic systems for Caterpillar's heavy construction and mining equipment, are about to enter their third month on strike.

Negotiations Fail

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Republican Gov. Scott Walker triumphantly returned to the Wisconsin Capitol Wednesday, fresh off of his decisive victory in Tuesday's bitter recall election.

The governor appears to be emerging from the tough recall fight stronger, and with his national profile rising.

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Patrick Fitzgerald, the federal prosecutor who went after the Gambino crime family, al-Qaida and even the White House in court — not to mention several Illinois politicians — is leaving his job as U.S. attorney in Chicago.

The career prosecutor, known as "Eliot Ness with a Harvard degree," will leave a legacy as a tenacious corruption buster, though some criticize his style as overzealous.

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One of the most successful federal prosecutors in the country is stepping down. Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, says he will leave office at the end of June. Over the last several years, Fitzgerald won the convictions of two Illinois governors on corruption charges and of former Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Scooter Libby, in the CIA leak case.

From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports on the legacy of Chicago's longest-serving U.S. attorney.

What's being called the first official protest of NATO kicked off Friday in downtown Chicago, where an estimated 1,000 nurses are expected to gather. They're calling for a "Robin Hood Tax" whereby Wall Street earnings are taxed to help relieve inadequacies in healthcare.

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More than 50 world leaders come to Chicago this weekend for a summit meeting of NATO, the North Atlantic Alliance. They will discuss, among other things, how to end the war in Afghanistan. They will talk in a city where anti-war protestors famously clashed with police outside the 1968 Democratic convention. In 2012, anti-war activists are making preparations. NPR's David Schaper reports.

Three years ago, President Obama was rolling out an ambitious vision for high-speed rail in America. "Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 mph," the president said at the time.

Today, there are a few Amtrak trains going that fast, but for the most part, the president's plans for high-speed trains have slowed considerably.

Voters in Wisconsin Tuesday, chose the Democrat who will face Republican Governor Scott Walker in next month's gubernatorial recall election. The winning Democrat was Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

Shortly after he took office last winter, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and fellow Republicans in the Legislature enraged Democrats and public employee unions by cutting collective bargaining rights, and Wisconsin has been on fire politically ever since. A protest movement forced a recall election, scheduled for June 5, and now, voters in Tuesday's Democratic gubernatorial primary will select Walker's challenger.

Most kids in Chicago's public schools spend just five hours and 45 minutes in school a day. It's one of the shortest school days in the country.

That's why more than half of the city's public elementary schools have no recess. At those that do, it's shockingly short.

"We have a 10-minute recess and a 10-minute lunch at our school," says Wendy Katten, mother of a third-grader at Burley Elementary School in Chicago. "It's not sufficient."

The top financial official for the small city of Dixon, Ill., is accused of stealing more than $30 million from city coffers over the past six years. It's a staggering amount of money for the city of just 15,000 residents in northwest Illinois, and federal prosecutors allege she used the funds to finance a lavish lifestyle that included horse farms and a $2 million luxury motor home.

It's another furious dash to the finish line as delegate-rich Illinois holds its Republican presidential primary Tuesday.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is looking to increase his delegate lead. And he's still searching for that decisive win over his main rival, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Redistricting is forcing a handful of congressional incumbents of the same party to run against each other in primaries. On March 6, Rep. Marcy Kaptur defeated fellow liberal Democrat Rep. Dennis Kucinich in Ohio.

And next Tuesday, two conservative Republicans square off in Illinois.

The scene is the newly drawn 16th Congressional District, which covers mostly rural territory in the northern part of the state, curving around the suburbs and exurbs of Chicago, from the Wisconsin border north of Rockford to the Indiana border east of Kankakee.

Elkhart, Ind., is known as the RV capital of the world. The city suffered badly when the recession hit and demand for recreational vehicles all but screeched to a halt. That's when local and state leaders started looking for ways to bolster the area's manufacturing industry.

The unemployment rate in the city along the Michigan border eventually soared to 20 percent — the highest in the nation at the time.

It's one of the few politician-sponsored activities that should be free of controversy: a high school art contest.

But an annual citywide competition to design the stickers affixed to every windshield in Chicago has suddenly become a public relations nightmare.

The sticker, designed by 15-year-old Herbie Pulgar, depicts Chicago's famous skyline inside of a heart, with a backdrop of the city's blue and white flag. Extending up from the heart are four hands, and above them, symbols representing police officers, firefighters and paramedics.

At a coffee shop in Muscatine, Iowa, Tuesday, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was asked whether nominating a social conservative might sink the party's chances of winning the White House in November.

Muscatine is in a more moderate part of eastern Iowa, and the man who asked the question told Gingrich there are many business people — fiscal conservatives — who don't agree with the GOP platform positions on abortion, gay rights and other issues. The man asked Gingrich if social conservatives are throwing fiscal conservatives "under the bus."

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