The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, surfaced Wednesday as the latest issue in the U.S. Senate race, with each side claiming the other doesn't care about the nearly 3,000 victims and thousands of first responders who came to their aid.

Earlier this week, former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson began airing a commercial that blasted U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, for voting against a 2006 resolution honoring victims of the attacks, in which hijacked planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A fourth hijacked airliner was overtaken by a planeload of passengers who crashed it in a field in Pennsylvania to avoid further damage.

The Baldwin campaign fired back with its own ad Wednesday charging that while Thompson was secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, he neglected the needs of 9/11 responders sickened by their time at the World Trade Center site in New York City.

Then, when he joined the private sector, Thompson made millions of dollars as president of Logistics Health Inc., which won an $11 million contract from the federal health department to treat 9/11 responders after Thompson left the agency, the ad said.

Senate race tied

The candidates are locked in a tight race, with nearly $30 million in outside spending and recent polling showing the contest a dead heat. The outcome of the Nov. 6 election will help determine whether Democrats retain control of the Senate, where they currently hold a 51-47 majority with two independents who tend to vote Democratic.

In a conference call with reporters, Baldwin campaign spokesman John Kraus said Baldwin voted against the resolution because it "politicized" the attacks by adding other provisions praising the USA Patriot Act and an unrelated immigration proposal. He noted that she voted nine other times to honor 9/11 victims and responders.

"It is desperate and disgusting for Tommy Thompson to play politics with 9/11," Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin and former Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, told reporters on the call. labeled the ad "false and vicious" for "cherry-picking a vote to distort the facts."

But the Thompson campaign stood by it Wednesday.

"Baldwin was one of only 22 members to vote against (House Resolution) 994, a resolution that passed nearly unanimously with the bipartisan support of all of the Wisconsin delegation except for her, and one that even (then-Speaker) Nancy Pelosi supported," campaign spokeswoman Lisa Boothe said in a statement. "Unfortunately for Baldwin, there is nothing she can say to cover up the fact that she chose to politicize a vote over honoring the victims of Sept. 11."

Logistics Health contract

Baldwin's commercial is based in large part on a State Journal story from 2008 in which first responders, including an American Red Cross volunteer from Holmen, Wis., complained that they were unable to get health care for their 9/11-related ailments for months after Logistics Health took over a federal health-care contract in June 2008.

In a follow-up story, Thompson blamed fumbling by the federal government, rather than La Crosse-based Logistics Health, for the gap in coverage for the 9/11 responders living outside of New York.

Thompson's campaign insisted Wednesday that "from the moment our nation was attacked, Thompson committed himself to providing the health care that was needed for victims and first responders."

In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, former New York Gov. George Pataki reiterated that point, saying Thompson was "a force of nature" in marshaling money, equipment and personnel to help the 9/11 victims and responders during his four years as health secretary from 2001 and 2005.

"He (Thompson) was truly just one of the great forces in Washington that we could count on and rely on," said Pataki, also a Republican. "Tommy Thompson was always there."

In a statement released by the Baldwin campaign, John Feal, president of the FealGood Foundation that helps 9/11 first responders, recalled Thompson's tenure differently.

"When we went to Tommy Thompson in the Bush administration to get health care funding ... they kept fighting us," Feal said.

Two Democratic members of the New York congressional delegation who spearheaded the push to help 9/11 responders, also criticized Thompson. In a statement released by the Baldwin campaign, U.S. Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn Maloney said the former secretary "refused to make health care a priority for first responders" then mismanaged the responsibility after Logistics Health got the contract.