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DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene. Good morning.
Were it not for the drama of the presidential race, the battle for the U.S. Senate would probably be getting a lot more attention.
INSKEEP: Democrats and their allies hold 53 of 100 seats. They have to defend many of those seats in November.
GREENE: A net loss of just three seats would put them at risk of losing control of the chamber. A net loss of four would guarantee it.
INSKEEP: This morning, we'll focus on one of the many races that figure into that equation. In Wisconsin, Democrat Herb Kohl is retiring, making it harder for his party to hang on.
GREENE: Early polls show popular former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson with an excellent chance of taking over, but recent polls show Thompson now trailing Democratic Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin.
Here's NPR's David Schaper.
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DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Campaigning in Wisconsin is more than just shaking hands and kissing babies. It sometimes means dancing a polka.
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SCHAPER: At the annual corn roast of fellow Congressman Ron Kind in the small town of West Salem last night, Tammy Baldwin didn't spin to the oom-pahs of the accordion and the tuba. But she did press the flesh.
REPRESENTATIVE TAMMY BALDWIN: Hi. Tammy Baldwin. Please to meet you. How's the corn tonight?
SCHAPER: Many consider the liberal congresswoman from Madison the underdog, after Republicans in August dominated former four-term Governor Tommy Thompson for Wisconsin's open U.S. Senate seat. But recent polls show that the race is flipped, in part because Baldwin is firing up the Democratic Party base.
NANCY TILMONAS: We're just so happy to have a good candidate, and I think she'll do well.
SCHAPER: Nancy Tilmonas is a retired teacher from Holmen, Wisconsin.
TILMONAS: That was the first time I met her, was right there, personally. So - but I'm just really happy with what I'm seeing in her ads and in her literature and what she's going to do for our state.
SCHAPER: But while Wisconsin Democrats are pleasantly surprised to see Baldwin now in the lead, they also know this race is far from over, because ask a lot of people in Wisconsin what they think of Tommy Thompson, and you get this kind of response.
ALEX SEMINAS: Oh, I love the guy. I think he's great.
SCHAPER: Sixty-three-year-old Alex Seminas of Fond du Lac says he and many other voters remember Thompson's 14 years in office fondly.
SEMINAS: Tommy Thompson is like Wisconsin. He was here when the Packers won the Super Bowl. He was our governor then. He just represents Wisconsin well.
SCHAPER: But some at Ala Roma Pizzeria and Pub in Fond du Lac wonder if after 12 years out of office, Thompson's time in politics has come and gone.
Forty-five-year-old business owner Rick Mueller says he appreciates all Thompson did as governor, but...
RICK MUELLER: When I do see him, I think, you know, why isn't he in a fishing boat? You know, I look at him, and I'm thinking he's done enough. He doesn't have a whole lot to prove.
SCHAPER: And some Wisconsin voters say they didn't really think much of Tommy Thompson back in the '80s and '90s, and see him as an even worse candidate today.
JACKIE POLLMAN: I think he's out of touch.
SCHAPER: Schoolteacher Jackie Pollman takes a short break from bowling at the South Park Lanes in south Milwaukee. She says it seems like a different Tommy Thompson is running for Senate now compared to the Tommy Thompson she remembers as governor.
POLLMAN: I think he doesn't have the people's best interests at heart anymore, the common, everyday person. I do think, in the past, he did have that, but I don't think he has that anymore.
SCHAPER: That's a theme ads attacking Thompson are hitting hard, making hay out of the fact that Thompson made millions as a Washington lobbyist after serving as Health and Human Services secretary under President Bush.
And the well-funded Baldwin campaign has been able to hammer away at Thompson, almost completely unanswered, because Thompson emerged from a bitter four-way Republican primary battered, bruised and almost out of money.
Republican political strategist Scott Becher.
SCOTT BECHER: He's said that, basically, they were broke.
SCHAPER: But Becher says the Thompson campaign is now retooled, refocused, has been raising money and is ready to hit back at Baldwin hard. Political scientist Joe Heim at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse says big money from outside groups is flowing into the Wisconsin Senate race, too.
JOE HEIM: I'm afraid it's going to get nasty.
SCHAPER: After all, Heim says, this could be the race that determines control of the Senate.
HEIM: As other races get decided or look like they're less contestable, I think this one's going to become more.
SCHAPER: And Heim says in this almost even-divided state, that means the outside money and the ads could make the difference, and so, too, could the three Thompson-Baldwin debates, the first of which is tonight.
David Schaper, NPR News, in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.