Tommy Thompson, the former four-term Wisconsin governor, strode through the midway at the Jefferson County Fair earlier this month, approaching strangers with a "How ya' doin'?"
Some fair-goers, briefly unsure of the man before them, quickly figured it out.
"Hey, I recognize you," said Glen Balis, a smile spreading across his face. Balis, a general laborer from Edgerton, said later he intends to vote for Thompson in the Republican U.S. Senate primary Aug. 14 because of Thompson's accomplishments as governor.
This is the kind of interaction Thompson relishes. In an interview, he spoke of his name recognition with pride and some braggadocio.
"Eighty-eight percent of the people in this state still know me," said Thompson, 70, who was U.S. secretary of health and human services under President George W. Bush. "And they don't know me as governor or secretary or Mr. Thompson. They know me as Tommy. I don't know of any person — Democrat or Republican — running any place in the United States for a statewide office that can use just their first name."
Thompson now finds himself in the curious position of defending his name — and his legacy — against critics in his own party. He's a Washington insider, they say, a closet moderate who layered on government spending as governor.
When he first ran for that post in 1986, detractors in his party derided him as too conservative to be elected statewide. Now, some say he's not conservative enough.
"Isn't that amazing?" said Thompson, clearly irked by the attacks. "I'll prove them wrong again."
Back in the fray
Thompson has never lost a statewide race, but his hold on this one appears increasingly tenuous. Once comfortably ahead in the polls, he's fending off Madison businessman Eric Hovde, a political newcomer who has pulled close in a couple of polls after spending millions of his own money.
Former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann and state Assembly speaker Jeff Fitzgerald also are in the Republican primary. The winner will face Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin on Nov. 6.
Thompson won't say how much of his own money he's spending on the race, other than "more than I thought I would." He pointedly says he has "the kind of popularity that money can't buy, because it's been earned through hard work."
Two years ago, he passed on challenging then-U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold. What changed? "My family was not in favor of me running then. They are today."
The extended Thompson family had a fuller plate in 2010 with pregnancies and newborns, and they wouldn't have had as much time to campaign, said daughter Tommi Thompson, 41, the middle of Thompson's three children.
She is finance and operations director for the Wisconsin Women's Health Foundation, started in 1997 by her mother, Sue Ann Thompson. The three Thompson siblings, all of whom campaigned with their father at the Jefferson County Fair, have eight children among them.
Since 2010, the country's debt has increased and the economy hasn't ignited, said Jason Thompson, 37, a Milwaukee attorney. "We all realize the country is in a financial disaster, and we think Dad is the best one to address it."
Added oldest sibling Kelli Thompson, 42, who heads the State Public Defender's Office: "The minute he didn't run two years ago, I think he regretted it. This is his passion."
A state institution
Thompson already had served 20 years in the state Assembly when he won the governorship in 1986. During his unprecedented four terms, he converted the state's welfare system from an entitlement to a jobs program, launched a public school voucher program, revamped education funding and helped create BadgerCare for poor families needing health care.
"He's a practical conservative," said Jim Mack, 73, a Beaver Dam attorney who has been friends with Thompson since training with him on the UW-Madison boxing team. "He isn't just against things. He figures out how to solve problems." (Thompson boxed at a sinewy 135 pounds and "could really take a punch," Mack said.)
Asked to pluck out an achievement he's most proud of, Thompson goes for one sure to appeal to GOP primary voters: "Ninety-one tax cuts, more than any other governor in the country, I believe."
With two years remaining in his fourth term, Thompson left Wisconsin to join Bush's Cabinet. Nine months into his federal post, terrorists struck New York City, thrusting Thompson onto the world stage as an anthrax scare swept the country.
Private sector work
Thompson left his federal post in 2005 after four years. He launched a brief, poorly received campaign for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination but mainly has been amassing lucrative corporate positions that critics label a cash grab. He has assets of more than $13 million, according to his federal financial disclosure form.
He has shed many of his private-sector positions, including the presidency of Logistics Health Inc., which provides health care to military personnel. He had spent about one-third of his time there, he said.
Earlier this year, he left the D.C. law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, where he'd been a partner. He remains the chairman of three companies and sits on the boards of four others, he said.
Thompson makes no apologies for his private-sector salaries. Using income from speeches, he completed a new house four years ago on his farm near Elroy in Juneau County, about 85 miles northwest of Madison.
Thompson grew up in the city of Elroy, the son of a grocery store owner and teacher. His grandparents lived on the farm then.
He now grows corn, soybeans and hay on 700 acres there and raises a herd of about 100 Belted Galloway cows. A family friend handles day-to-day operations.
Thompson and his wife, Sue Ann, have been married 43 years. They've made Madison their primary residence since 2001, when they bought a new house on Madison's Far East Side for $353,900. The couple also own a year-round home on Lake Wisconsin.
If elected, Thompson would be 77 when his first Senate term ends. He bats away health questions with mild irritation, saying he's mentally and physically strong. He'd consider a second Senate term if the country's problems aren't fixed in six years, he said.
He does 100 pushups every day — one set of 50 in the morning, another set at night. He walked more than 10 miles in 100-degree heat in four parades on July 4.
"There's nothing he used to do that he can't do now," said Sue Ann Thompson, 70, who works full time at the foundation she started. "He goes up to our farm and can spend 12 hours a day planting corn or tagging cows."
She didn't really expect her husband to be on the campaign trail again, she said. But knowing the seriousness of the country's problems and how dedicated her husband is to Wisconsin, "I told him to go for it," she said. "You have to live your dreams."