Former Governor Tommy Thompson wound up an arm-waving speech with a series of “God love yous” beneath a fluttering American flag amid whistles and cheers.
“Hey, I love ya,” the Senate candidate boomed repeatedly to the Oct. 2 gathering of homebuilders in Milwaukee. It was like old times for Wisconsin’s iconic Republican, a man accustomed to the warm electoral hug of lopsided victories.
The return embrace isn’t what it was. In Wisconsin, as in other states, political familiarity can be a hindrance: Polls show Thompson either trailing or deadlocked with U.S. Representative Tammy Baldwin, a soft-spoken seven-term Democrat from Madison who was kindergarten age in 1966 when Thompson, 70, started his political career.
This isn’t the scenario that Republicans expected after Governor Scott Walker fended off a Democratic-backed recall effort in June, and Romney selected home-state Representative Paul Ryan as his running mate. Party members said they had a chance of winning Wisconsin for the first time since 1984.
An hour after Thompson’s tub-thumping speech across town, Baldwin, 50, hosted a low-volume listening session with eight college students. Her milder approach had her leading the Republican 48 percent to 44 percent in a Marquette Law School poll of 894 likely voters, released Oct. 3. The survey conducted Sept. 27 through Sept. 30 also showed President Barack Obama holding a 53 percent to 42 percent margin over Republican Mitt Romney.
While Thompson, the state’s longest-serving governor and former secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush, declared himself the most electable candidate in November and won the party’s primary, his 3 percentage-point victory in August over three more conservative candidates suggested a volatile political climate.
“People are asking the question, ’Who’s fighting for us?’ versus ‘Who’s fighting for the big and powerful,’” Baldwin said in an Oct. 2 interview in Milwaukee. “Whose side are you on is a classic question in some elections, and I think it’s coming to bear very particularly in this.”
Baldwin, a Madison-born lawyer with strong approval ratings from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans for Democratic Action, was the first openly gay nonincumbent to win election to the U.S. House, in 1998. Sexual orientation has rarely been discussed in the campaign --“Almost never, and I can tell you emphatically that people are looking ahead, getting by in this economy,” she said.
At a Sept. 28 debate in Milwaukee, Baldwin argued for letting the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire, while Thompson promised to retain them.
Wisconsin has been enveloped in turmoil most of the past two years. Economic disgruntlement propelled the 2010 election of Walker and the Tea Party-backed Senate candidate Ron Johnson, who ousted three-term Democrat Russ Feingold.
Walker provoked recall campaigns against state senate allies and himself when he obtained legislative approval of restrictions on collective bargaining. In his successful effort to thwart his own ouster in June, Walker portrayed public employees as privileged. In the U.S. Senate race, Thompson and Baldwin each claim to be the champion of the middle class.
Return to Populism
“He’s the best one,” said Mark Miller, 64, a retired printing-company worker who attended the Thompson appearance in Milwaukee. Miller, a self-described conservative, said he doesn’t like Baldwin. “In fact, I don’t like Democrats at all.”
Wendy Zetting, 49, who lost her job as a flight attendant after 21 years in 2009, spent the past three years studying to be a dietetic technician. Baldwin “is in touch with people’s wants and needs,” she said at a Milwaukee technical school.
Charles Franklin, a political scientist who runs the Milwaukee-based Marquette Poll, said Baldwin is trying to “to recapture the notion that the Democratic candidate is the populist candidate,” he said. “She’s trying hard to portray Thompson as the tool of the elite.”
In his 14 years as governor, Thompson overhauled the state’s welfare system and promoted school choice. Serving from 1987 to 2001, he won his last three elections by yawning margins, one by 36 percentage points.
Thompson’s departure from the Bush administration in 2005 led to his serving on the boards of health-care companies, including his chairmanship of TherapeuticsMD, a Florida pharmaceutical firm. He joined a Washington law firm, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. The Baldwin campaign has labeled Thompson a lobbyist for companies his agency used to oversee, a charge that Thompson angrily denies.
“I’ve never been a lobbyist,” he said in an interview. “That’s absolutely a lie.”
Thompson is working to define Baldwin as a big-spender, calling her “out of the mainstream. She is too liberal, too radical for Wisconsin.”
With less than five weeks before Election Day, the race is about defining the opponent.
“I don’t feel like Tommy’s in touch with where people are right now,” Baldwin said.
And Thompson replied, “If anybody’s out of touch, she epitomizes out of touch.”
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