Jeff Fitzgerald file photo
Republican Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald speaks to the Assembly at the state Capitol on Feb. 24, 2011. M.P. KING – State Journal archives

Although none of the four Republican candidates for U.S. Senate managed to capture the necessary 60 percent of delegate votes to earn the party's official endorsement, the first-place finish for Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald at the state GOP convention in Green Bay may have been the only thing keeping his cash-starved campaign from dwindling into irrelevance.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that Fitzgerald only came in first place Saturday as a result of a series of calculations by GOP delegates who favored businessman Eric Hovde and former Gov. Tommy Thompson. In fact, on the first ballot, former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann easily came in first place with 42 percent of the vote, with Fitzgerald and Thompson trailing with 20.9 and 20.8 percent of the delegates, respectively. Hovde, who came in last with 16.3 percent, was thus eliminated from the ballot.

That is when the Fitzgerald team starting working its magic.

Immediately following the first ballot, Fitzgerald staffers and volunteers rushed to gather up Hovde signs, holding the signs side-by-side with Fitzgerald posters, urging the businessman's supporters to vote for the Assembly Speaker on the second ballot. The strategy was apparently successful, as Fitzgerald's vote share increased to 35.2 percent, Neumann's increased by only four percent, and Thompson was eliminated after his total decreased to 18.2 percent.

Hovde spokesman Sean Lansing said he wasn't surprised by the shift in support to Fitzgerald.

"I don't know that (Hovde staffers) are necessarily encouraging anybody to vote for Fitz, I think a lot of our supporters will vote for him though, I think he would have been their second choice."

The same was apparently true of Thompson supporters, who pushed Fitzgerald's total to 51.5 percent of the vote on the final ballot, allowing him to best Neumann by three percentage points.

The votes for Fitzgerald, who many delegates and staffers said gave the best speech of the convention, were likely as much about keeping the endorsement out of Neumann's hands as they were an expression of support for the Assembly speaker.

"My issue with Neumann is he did some things in 2010 and I haven't forgiven him," said a Hovde supporter from Rock County -- who preferred not to be named for professional reasons -- referring to the attacks Neumann made against then-candidate Scott Walker in the GOP primary for governor.

And Dave Olson, a tea party activist from St. Croix County whom I had previously met at an Americans for Prosperity rally, voted strategically in every round to prevent any candidate from receiving the party's endorsement, which he believes unfairly advantages one candidate before the primary voters get a chance to choose.

He and his wife, Annette, seemed optimistic about all of the candidates except Thompson, whom Dave called a "progressive Republican."

Surprisingly, the Olsons were the only delegates I talked to who expressed the opinion that Hovde's campaign has been peddling: That Thompson is not sufficiently conservative for the modern Republican Party given his record of expanding state services as governor and his past support for Obama-style initiatives such as health care mandates. In fact, Dave was wearing an "Anybody But Tommy" pin on his lapel.

Most of Thompson's supporters were middle-aged and older adults who fondly remembered Thompson and the prosperity that defined his 14-year tenure as governor from 1986 to 2000.

"I'm for Tommy because he was for the small businessman," said Mark Schmidt, who runs a timber business in Bayfield County. "We couldn't sell our timber without buying expensive insurance and he helped us."

Thompson's young supporters tended to regard the former governor as the candidate most likely to beat U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Madison, the presumptive Democratic nominee, in the general election.

"He's a proven winner," said Tony Curry, a young man who explained Thompson's apparent reversal on Obama's health care initiative as a result of "details" about the process. "There needs to be health care reform, but the problem is the way they went about it."

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Elliot Fitch, a recent college graduate, cited Thompson's experience and work on welfare reform in supporting him. During his tenure, Thompson implemented Wisconsin Works (W-2), a program that received much national attention. It made paid work a mandatory part of receiving financial assistance for low-income families.

"A large part of politics is always going to be compromise," Fitch continued, after I listed the typical grievances that conservatives have against Thompson. "I want a candidate who can win and Thompson has a better chance of getting a winning coalition” of voters.

The Neumann supporters, many of whom donned green and yellow shirts with the number 12 -- a reference to both Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the election year -- consistently cited Neumann's conservatism and business experience in explaining their preferences.

"Neumann has the strongest plan to balance the budget soonest," said Jonathan Jackson, a Ron Paul supporter from Madison. "And his time in Congress showed that he is willing to stand up to the GOP to stop spending."

"In Ashland they think he's the most conservative," said Linda Kostka, who dismissed complaints about Neumann's attacks against Walker in 2010. "Politics is politics, honey."

While most delegates acknowledged it might be hard for Hovde to portray himself as a "Washington outsider" after spending 25 years as a banker and large campaign contributor in the nation's capital, his carpetbagger status did not seem to be a deal-breaker for most activists.

State Sen. Glenn Grothman of West Bend, who tends to paint himself as an advocate for "the little guy," said Hovde's connections to Wisconsin were strong enough.

"He grew up here, he went to college here and has maintained a business here," he reasoned.

One thing everybody agreed on: The race is not a blip on the radar until June 6, the day after the recall election against Walker is over.

Jack Craver is the Capital Times political reporter, focusing on elections, candidates and campaign finance.