By Bob Secter and Kim Geiger, Tribune Washington Bureau -
PEWAUKEE, Wis. — Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson was nursing a small lead late Tuesday in a four-way Republican primary for an open U.S. Senate seat, setting up an ideologically divisive November battle with Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin.
According to unofficial returns, Thompson led his nearest rival, Eric Hovde, by more than 8,000 votes with slightly more than half the precincts reporting.
Thompson, 70, was known as governor for his ability to work with Democrats, but he tacked far to the right in the primary in hopes of swaying tea party Republicans. The 50-year-old Baldwin, a veteran U.S. representative from Madison, owns a liberal voting record but in past elections has won over voters in some conservative parts of her district.
Baldwin faced no primary opposition, and her presence on the November ballot is sure to elevate the contest into a national showcase. She is the first openly gay candidate to run on a major party ticket for the Senate.
Even before the primary vote was tallied, Republicans were lining up to paint Baldwin as a big-spending and out-of-touch liberal. “Baldwin is far to the left of not just President Obama, but to the vast majority of voters in Wisconsin,” read a statement from the National Republican Senatorial Committee issued before the GOP primary votes were even tallied.
That may seem a risky calculus for Democrats hoping to retain control of the Senate, a crucial piece of which would be holding onto the Wisconsin seat held for a generation by retiring Democrat Herb Kohl.
Recent polls show Baldwin holding her own in hypothetical matchups with each of her potential GOP rivals, including Thompson, the popular former governor and U.S. Health secretary attempting a comeback at age 70.
The Senate race will cap quite a year in the national spotlight for Wisconsin politics, beginning with a bruising but failed attempt by Democrats and organized labor to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Just days ago, soon-to-be GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney added veteran U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Janesville, Wis., to the national ticket.
As a four-term governor, Thompson amassed a broad wellspring of popularity that he clearly hoped would carry over into the Senate campaign. To woo conservative voters, he stressed his authorship of landmark welfare-to-work legislation in Wisconsin, which later served as a template for a national welfare overhaul under the Clinton administration.
To certify his conservative chops, Thompson centered his campaign on a pledge to deliver the decisive vote to repeal the Obama health-care legislation. His campaign also immersed itself in the closing days with endorsements from icons of the right, including former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
He also highlighted support from conservative rocker Ted Nugent, Ohio activist and current congressional candidate Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, best known as “Joe the Plumber,” and onetime presidential contender Herman Cain.