By Nick Carey
WEST SALEM, Wisconsin - Fresh off a nasty battle to recall Wisconsin's governor in the spring, the state has another high profile political fight on its hands for the U.S. Senate.
But after an expensive four-way Republican primary that he won narrowly, Senate candidate and former governor Tommy Thompson was left "broke" - forcing him to raise more money and campaign less. Poor polling for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who is an average of 8 points behind Democratic President Barack Obama in the state, has not helped.
Thompson's Democratic opponent, Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, meanwhile has been campaigning actively and spending freely on advertising, erasing a lead for Thompson and putting her ahead by an average of 5 points in September polling.
"Tommy Thompson has gotten himself into somewhat of a hole," said Barry Burden, a politics professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "He's taken a pounding and he's not where he wants to be with less than six weeks to go."
Thompson, Wisconsin's longest-serving governor, and Baldwin, who would be the first openly gay U.S. senator, both claim to be middle-class champions and anticipate a tough campaign.
"I think you're going to see a closer, more competitive race than what you see in the polls," Baldwin said before campaigning in West Salem, a town of 5,000 in western Wisconsin. "Historically, this has been an evenly divided state."
After a bruising 16-month battle over a law curtailing collective bargaining rights for public sector workers that ended in the unsuccessful recall of Walker, Wisconsin was seen as a tossup in Senate and presidential races. Romney's choice of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate does not appear to have helped Republicans here.
Democrats now control the Senate, 53-47, and Republicans need a net gain of four seats on November 6 to ensure they take a majority in the chamber and control the legislative agenda.
Thompson says that Baldwin campaign's cash advantage over the past six weeks "means that I have to work harder."
"But now we got money and we're coming back."
Charles Franklin, a professor at Marquette Law School in Milwaukee, says there is still time for the momentum to shift. "But time is beginning to run short," he said
"FOR THE AVERAGE JANE"
The issues in the race largely reflect those in the national election. Thompson argues lower taxes, fewer regulations, large spending cuts and entitlement reform will boost the sluggish U.S. economy. He also attacks Baldwin for supporting Obama's health care reforms, and vows to repeal them.
The former governor has shifted from describing himself as a "true conservative" in the Republican primary to a "moderate conservative." Thompson says he had a successful record as governor and that Baldwin is an extreme liberal who favors "more taxes and government control of the economy."
A February 2012 National Journal ranking of U.S. House members has Baldwin tied with two others as the 21st most liberal of the 435-member chamber.
Republican voters like Doug Hass, who lives north of Madison, say Thompson will bring sanity to Washington.
"We need to cut the debt and kill Obamacare," Hass said.
Baldwin says deficit reduction is not enough and the United needs investments in infrastructure, education and research to create jobs. She says she is a champion for the middle class, while her opponent favors tax cuts for the wealthy.
Acknowledging Thompson's residual popularity from his time as governor, she focuses on his record after leaving office in 2001 - as Secretary of Health and Human Services under George W Bush and then as a consultant for health care firms.
When asked if her sexual orientation may be raised as an issue in the campaign, Baldwin returned to her main theme.
"Voters want a fighter who is going to be on the side of hard-working, middle-class families," she said.
Voters at the recent event in West Salem, a Midwestern corn roast complete with polka band, shared that view.
"I don't care one bit about Tammy Baldwin's sexual orientation," said Darral Faas, 54, a part-time cashier. "What matters to me is that in Congress she was a staunch advocate for the average Joe and the average Jane."
"RIGHT DOWN TO THE WIRE"
Thompson scraped by in the August 14 Republican primary with just under 34 percent in the vote. Marquette's Franklin says this is a far cry from Thompson's gubernatorial campaigns, the last was in 1998, when he crushed his opponents.
"Tommy is not the dominant figure he once was," he said.
Thompson said the primary left him "$1 million in the hole." As of late July, Baldwin had more than $3.1 million on hand, according to regulatory filings, and has spent heavily on advertising to make full use of that advantage.
Both sides have proxy groups advertising on their behalf. Republican strategist Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS spent more than $2 million on advertising attacking Baldwin in September.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spent around $1.5 million attacking Thompson in September, while the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, the largest U.S. public sector union, spent almost $1 million.
Although no Republican presidential candidate has won Wisconsin since 1984 and Obama won here by 14 points in 2008, the state has a history of tight races. John Kerry beat George W. Bush by around 10,000 votes in 2004, while Al Gore won by around 5,000 in 2000. With turnout here expected to reach 70 percent, getting people to the polls will be crucial.
(Reporting by Nick Carey; Editing by Jackie Frank)