In their first head-to-head debate, neither Tammy Baldwin or Tommy Thompson struck me as a clear winner. Stylistically, both were mediocre. Thompson misspoke on a number of occasions, using the wrong word or seemingly skipping words. And Baldwin, who has never been a fiery speaker, probably said "um" more times than she would have liked.
But a candidate does not enter a debate hoping to win high marks from a high school speaking coach. He or she aims to communicate a message and a personality that appeals to the few undecided voters who remain. To that end, both candidates made a number of key points.
"I have taken on powerful interests on behalf of ordinary citizens. My opponent has taken on powerful special interests as clients," she said in her opening statement.
Whereas she is an advocate for the middle class, she said Thompson has sold out to represent powerful, monied interests, particularly health insurance companies and pharmaceutical firms.
Furthermore, Thompson's advocacy for such interests has cost U.S. taxpayers, she said, pointing, for instance, to his role in creating a costly new prescription drug benefit, Medicare Part D, which forbids the federal government from negotiating with drug companies over the price of prescription medicine for Medicare beneficiaries.
"There's two sets of rules for the road," Baldwin said. "One set for the well-off and well-connected and one for the rest of us."
Reforming the tax code has been a major focus of Baldwin's populist campaign. She often cites her sponsorship of the "Buffett Rule," a proposed bill that would required those making over a million dollars a year to pay at least 30 percent in taxes.
"The last thing we need going forward is for Tommy Thompson and others to rip up the Affordable Care Act."
Like many Democrats, including the president, Baldwin is not running away from "Obamacare," as polls indicate Americans are warming to the initiative, and Republicans have struggled to offer an articulate alternative.
"(Medicare) is something I regard as more than a program but a promise and one that we must keep. My opponent supports a plan to end Medicare as we know it, to instead give seniors vouchers that outside, nonpartisan analysts have said will increase out-of-pocket expenses for seniors over the first decade by up to $6,000. And I know very few Wisconsin seniors who can afford that sort of burden."
Preserving Medicare is one of the central themes of Baldwin's campaign and it is one of the most effective attacks against Republicans.
"Ninety percent of the people of this state know me as 'Tommy.' Not as Mr. Thompson, not as 'Governor,' not as 'Secretary,' but as Tommy."
Pushing back against his portrayal by Democrats as a Washington insider, Thompson repeatedly emphasized his attachment to his home state. He said that he has never left Wisconsin; that he even continues to farm here.
"I built Wisconsin."
The former governor has never been criticized for a lack of self-regard. Indeed, Thompson reminded voters Friday night that he created BadgerCare, a program he avoided discussing at all costs during the GOP primary race, whose electorate regards expanding social services as anything but a badge of honor.
"I cut taxes 91 times ... My opponent is a taxer and a spender."
That is a classic Republican message that more than a few swing voters like to hear.
"She doesn't have a record to run on."
Compared to him, the guy who "built Wisconsin," ("bipartisanly" [sic] no less), Thompson asserted, who is Tammy Baldwin? According to Thompson, her only accomplishment is being rated as the most liberal member of Congress.