MADISON -- It's been decades -- maybe since John F. Kennedy's Democratic bid for the presidency in 1960 -- since Wisconsin has had a presidential primary fight that really meant something. The state's April primary now comes so late, it amounts to a collective, "Us, too," in the quadrennial balloting to select the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees.
Maybe that explains why Wisconsin residents are loving this general election season. George W. Bush, Al Gore, their running mates, members of their immediate families and surrogates are turning up in the state almost every day. This year, Wisconsin has symbolic importance far beyond its winner-take-all 11 Electoral College votes.
Bush has been in Wisconsin six times in seven months, for example, and is scheduled to be back at least once more before Nov. 7. Gore, who floated down the state's Mississippi River border immediately after getting his party's nomination in August, will be back this week and so will Republican vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney. If you're a national political player this election, you're certain to have a Cheesehead hat.
"People in Wisconsin know when a candidate wants their vote," said Kevin Keane, the top staff political adviser to popular four-term Republican Gov. Tommy G. Thompson. "They want to see, and hear, the candidates in person.
"Thompson, the nation's longest-serving governor, could be offered a job in a Bush administration. That, and the personal embarrassment of never being able to carry Wisconsin for a Republican presidential candidate on his 14-year watch, have Thompson working non-stop for Bush, telling Bush's national advisers how to win Wisconsin, and stumping in other Midwest battleground states. Monday/Oct. 9, for example, Thompson was in Findlay, Ohio, for a Hancock County dinner of 1,000 rabid Republicans; Oct.19, he's doing the same thing in Muskegon, Michigan. Thompson has also been told he may be sent by the Bush team to California and Florida.
Why all the fuss about Wisconsin? Because, by all polls, the state is a true toss-up. In Wisconsin, ticket-splitting is an art form: A four-term Republican governor, two Democratic U.S. senators, a Democratic attorney general (who is running for governor in 2002) and a split Legislature. The state hasn't voted Republican for president since 1984.
"Maybe the governor isn't on our side, but the issues are on the side of Al Gore," said John Kraus, Gore's spokesman for Wisconsin. "This election is going to be won on the ground."
The all-out-effort by the presidential campaigns to carry Wisconsin on Nov. 7 has drowned out the listless campaign for the U.S Senate here. Republican John Gillespie, who founded Wisconsin's successful equal to Nebraska's Boys Town for disadvantaged children, is challenging Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl, popular millionaire owner of the Milwaukee Bucks. But Gillespie's campaign is so broke it has not even been able to shoot its first TV commercial, while Kohl has given his campaign $3 million so far, with $2 million or so more on the way.
The last statewide U.S Senate poll can be summarized this way: Does Gillespie have a chance? Forgetaboutit!
It's much, more interesting in the Madison-based 2nd Congressional District, which elected the first self-declared lesbian, Democrat Tammy Baldwin, to the House of Representatives two years ago. UW-Madison students elected Baldwin, since they gave her half of her winning margin district wide. This year, popular UW-Madison political science professor John Sharpless is challenging Baldwin for the 40,000-plus votes of Madison students.
Baldwin-versus-Sharpless has turned the campus into a political free fire zone. "This is as much my turf as it is her's," Sharpless says of UW-Madison. He'd love to get half the campus vote, but still thinks he could win with 35% of it. The rest of the state's Congressional delegation appears to be safe from serious challenge, although one seat is likely to be lost two years from now in post-Census redistricting.
Wisconsin's Capitol is eerily quiet, as both parties focus on the handful of regional races that will decide whether Republicans keep control of the state Assembly, and whether Democrats keep their shaky 17-16 grip on the state Senate. Three Senate races -- two along western Wisconsin's border with Minnesota -- will decide whether Democrats keep the Senate; two Green Bay-area races will be key to Republicans keeping control of the Assembly.