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On her campaign website, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch says she is “widely credited” with coming up with the phrase, “Wisconsin is Open for Business.”

But her boss, Gov. Scott Walker, used the exact phrase in his inaugural address Jan. 3, 2011: “And as your governor, I make this pledge: Wisconsin is open for business. We will work tirelessly to restore economic growth and vibrancy to our state. My top three priorities are jobs, jobs and jobs.”

And on Nov. 3, 2010, the day after he was elected, Walker appeared at a news conference outside of the state Capitol with the slogan attached to the podium.

Even earlier, former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle was quoted using the precise phrasing in 2005. And Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, a major backer of the campaign of Kleefisch and Walker, used the identical phrase in an advertising campaign more than a decade ago.

Moreover, variations on the phrase have been used by politicians and states — including New Jersey, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia — to describe their own pro-business policies for at least two decades.

So did Kleefisch engage in “plagiarism,” the same tag that Republicans have hung on Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke over her jobs plan?

Asked about claiming credit for the phrase on Wednesday, Kleefisch sidestepped the question, saying you can find “open for business” signs in any home-improvement store.

“I don’t think the idea of ‘open for business’ ... is something that any politician would ever have claimed to have invented,” she said.

But the biography section of her campaign website reads: “Widely credited for coining the phrase, ‘Wisconsin is Open for Business,’ Rebecca immediately played a key role in business growth and retention for Wisconsin — cold-calling Illinois businesses that, in turn, relocated to Wisconsin, and nimbly responding to businesses looking for support.”

Robert Drechsel, who runs the Center for Journalism Ethics at UW-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said Kleefisch does appear to claim credit. But he said the debate over semantics in the governor’s race has gone too far.

“Really, all of this is becoming a distraction,” he said. “All parties need to move on.”

Walker and his allies have accused Burke of plagiarism because a campaign consultant she hired to help write her jobs plan used similar or identical phrases for other Democratic gubernatorial candidates for whom he had worked, including candidates in Delaware, Tennessee and Indiana. The Walker/Kleefisch campaign and its allies have made this a major theme, including airing television ads criticizing Burke over the matter.

Burke’s campaign has defended the substance of the jobs plan while severing ties with the consultant. Her campaign did not respond to messages for comment Wednesday on Kleefisch’s claim.

“I would not call it plagiarism, just like I wouldn’t call what Mary Burke did plagiarism,” Michael Wagner, UW-Madison assistant professor of journalism and political science, said of Kleefisch’s website claim. “What Gov. Walker and Burke have done is called practicing politics. It is certainly unimaginative, but that’s not a crime nor is it an ethical violation.”

Said Drechsel: “Rather than construing either Mary Burke’s business plan or Rebecca Kleefisch’s taking credit for a slogan as plagiarism, I would see the central question as whether these candidates have been trying to mislead voters into believing they have original ideas which aren’t really original at all.”

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