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Political Spotlight Heats Up In Wisconsin


It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Cheryl Corley. Guy Raz is away.

Over the last two years, Wisconsin seems to have suddenly become an epicenter of national politics and, even more so, conservative politics. Governor Scott Walker survived a hotly contested recall effort following a big battle with the unions.

Now, there's Mitt Romney's vice presidential pick, Paul Ryan, who seems to be directing a lot of political heat towards the state. So, is this Wisconsin saying move over D.C., I'm the big cheese? Well, President Barack Obama carried the state by 14 points four years ago, but NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea says things have changed in the Badger State.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: There's a new poll out this week that says President Obama leads by four points. That's a considerable narrowing from earlier in the year. Of course, we don't really have great pre-Ryan polls so we can't say that it's because of a Ryan bounce. But this could be a real battleground this year.

CORLEY: Yeah. And Wisconsin hasn't voted for a Republican for president since 1984.

GONYEA: Ronald Reagan's re-election was the last time, exactly.

CORLEY: Well, Paul Ryan, of course, isn't the only big story in Wisconsin right now. Earlier this week, former Governor Tommy Thompson beat out three other candidates in the Republican primary for the state's open Senate seat.

GONYEA: In some ways, that race was the race that time forgot because it was overshadowed by the recall stuff and it was overshadowed literally in the week before the primary by the Paul Ryan announcement. But they did vote, and Tommy Thompson, who served three and a half terms as governor, beat out three more conservative challengers, including a Tea Party challenger.

Let's give a listen to Tommy Thompson from this past week.

TOMMY THOMPSON: We are Republicans, and we're going to make this country the country that we always wanted it to be - fiscally sound, capable of doing anything, bringing jobs back, opportunities back.

GONYEA: So he certainly running as a conservative and will be trying to win over conservative votes who supported others in the primary. And he, of course, is also going after the Democratic Senate leadership there, Harry Reid and President Obama.

CORLEY: But, you know, Don, Tommy Thompson has, at least when he was governor, he was this very pragmatic Republican, a centrist and, as you said, one of the recent few to survive a Tea Party challenge. Does his win mean a move to the middle for Republicans in any way at all? And are the voters in Wisconsin sending this kind of double message about where they're leaning since you have Scott Walker on one side here and Tommy Thompson who is known for being more moderate?

GONYEA: I think we have to be careful about reading too much into it. The anti-Thompson vote, the much more conservative vote within the Republican Party in Wisconsin was divided up among three other candidates. He won with just over a third of the vote, and it was close. So we can't read too much into it.

But the bottom line is the standard bearer for the Republicans for that open U.S. Senate seat going into the fall is someone who's very much an establishment guy who has been kind of a moderate Republican working across the aisle, even though he labels himself a conservative. And we'll see the degree to which they support him. Of course, he has a very liberal, progressive challenger on the Democratic side.

CORLEY: Absolutely. So, what can you tell us about his opponent that's current Representative Tammy Baldwin?

GONYEA: Tammy Baldwin has been in Congress since 1999, elected in 1998, so she is a very proud liberal, a leader for progressive causes. She has long supported health care reform, including universal health care. Also, an important biographical point: Baldwin is a lesbian. She came out as gay while in college. And when she was elected 14 years ago, she was the first openly gay non-incumbent ever elected to Congress, and she has made gay rights issues - human rights issues, supporting same-sex marriage, fighting workplace discrimination. She represents the Madison area and counties around there, and is very popular.

CORLEY: We'll see what happens in the big cheese. That's NPR's national political correspondent Don Gonyea. Don, thanks so much.

GONYEA: It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.