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In U.S. Senate race, is Tommy in or out?

Has Tommy Thompson become the Brett Favre of Wisconsin politics? Last year, the popular longtime governor drew comparisons to the once-beloved Green Bay Packers quarterback when he publicly mulled a comeback with a run for the U.S. Senate seat th...

Has Tommy Thompson become the Brett Favre of Wisconsin politics?

Last year, the popular longtime governor drew comparisons to the once-beloved Green Bay Packers quarterback when he publicly mulled a comeback with a run for the U.S. Senate seat then held by Democrat Russ Feingold.

Now that Thompson is getting serious about seeking the Republican nomination for the seat held by retiring Democratic U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl in 2012, he faces another Favre-esque problem: Some of the people calling loudest for him to stay retired once might have been among his biggest fans.

"In my mind, pretty much anybody but Tommy would be better," said Kirsten Lombard, organizer for the Madison-based tea party group Wisconsin 9/12 Project. "Tommy Thompson claims to be the 'original conservative,' but he wasn't ever all that conservative. It was a different era."

'A thinking conservative'

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During a boisterous speech at Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery in Madison last week, Thompson made clear he understands things have changed since he was last in office. But he suggested it's modern politics, not him, that needs to change.

"We're electing people way on the right side that believe you can do everything by stopping government. We elect too many people on the left who believe the only thing we can do is keep taxing and regulating. And we've got a government ... that nobody wants to talk to each other," Thompson told the crowd of professors and industry representatives gathered at the Wednesday night event.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the four-term governor built a reputation as the type of Republican who could win -- repeatedly -- in Wisconsin. Before his election in 1986, five of the previous seven governors had been Democrats.

Many remember Thompson, 69, as a negotiator, a peacekeeper and a deal-maker who could work with Democrats and Republicans alike. He helped set national trends with his work on Milwaukee's public school choice program and reforms creating the welfare-to-work program known as Wisconsin Works (W-2). In the late 1990s, Thompson and a bipartisan group of lawmakers created BadgerCare, allowing poor families with dependent children to get government-subsidized health care.

The anti-Tommy club

It's not Thompson, it's conservatives who have changed, UW-Milwaukee political science professor Mordecai Lee said.

"There's a generation for whom he's just a distant memory," said Lee, a former Democratic lawmaker. "Tommy represents a Republicanism that's out of fashion."

For months, the national conservative group Club for Growth, which endorsed former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann in early September, has been pushing the notion that Thompson isn't the right candidate.

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Long before Thompson began taking steps to officially join the race, the group -- whose political action committee supports candidates "who believe in pro-growth policies, limited government, low taxes and economic freedom" -- began hammering him in statewide TV ads. The ads portray Thompson as a longtime politician who has supported tax and spending increases, as well as the federal health care law that critics dubbed "ObamaCare."

"They want a different candidate, so they're trying to prevent me from running, or discourage me from running," Thompson said of the national group. "But it's the conservatives in the state that support me. Not people from New York."

As for charges about his record, Thompson said he cut taxes dozens of times, signed a huge property tax cut, and saw hundreds of thousands of jobs created in Wisconsin during his time as governor. And he stressed that he opposed the federal health care law.

"He served the state well," national Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller said. "But when you look at his spending ... we just think that Wisconsin Republicans can do better."

Such early attacks on Thompson are what UW-Madison political science professor Charles Franklin calls "preemptive advertising."

"It signals 'It is not going to be a cakewalk, governor,'" Franklin said. "It signals to strong fiscal conservatives that a leading conservative organization wants you to think differently of Thompson than you did 14 years ago."

The attack ads show a "real ideological shift" among Republicans, Franklin said, including a drop in support for programs Thompson championed, such as BadgerCare and W-2.

In a Republican primary, Thompson could face Neumann and current Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, who are both more closely associated with the new generation of conservative Republicans, like Gov. Scott Walker.

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State Sen. Frank Lasee, R-De Pere, has also said he will likely run.

But while "the Republican party has changed out from under him," Lee said it would be a mistake to count Thompson out.

"Tommy is a fabulous politician. I have never seen anybody work a room like that," he said. "The question is if Tommy still has the chops to pull it off."

'I want your vote'

Thompson has yet to formally announce his candidacy, so the only declared candidates so far are Neumann, a Nashotah home builder, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Madison.

His camp instead has dribbled out a stream of press releases, such as announcements about Thompson backers, endorsements and preliminary paperwork being filed.

But in recent interviews, Thompson already has been forced to defend his conservative credentials from within the GOP.

It's an odd situation for Thompson, who was begged by some in the party less than two years ago to run against Feingold. As late as the 2010 tax day tea party at the state Capitol, a crowd of fans was chanting, "Run, Tommy, Run!" He disappointed them, though, saying his family persuaded him not to run.

But now, he seems to be facing a tougher crowd.

His record during his four terms as governor, and after he left in 2001 to serve as U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush, will undoubtedly be vetted in the race -- as will his work since then. Since leaving the Bush administration in 2005, Thompson has served as a consultant for companies in the health care industry and others doing business in the public sector.

So far, Thompson's only declared primary opponent has been playing nice.

"In Wisconsin, we should respect Tommy's lifetime of service as governor, in the Legislature, and in President Bush's Cabinet," Neumann said Monday. "My focus in this race is on Tammy Baldwin."

Thompson may not be a candidate yet. But he was in pure campaign mode as he spoke to a group of scientists Wednesday night. He stressed the importance of the 2012 elections and promised to bring change to Washington, comparing himself to a quarterback on a fourth down with four yards to go.

"Our country and our state have too many problems right now to be in a position of not talking to half the people. We've got to come together," he said after mingling with audience members.

Asked if there was anything he wanted to add, Thompson didn't hesitate.

"I want your vote."

(c)2011 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)

Visit The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.) at www.wisconsinstatejournal.com

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