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Nicholson Vukmir debate

Republican U.S. Senate candidates Kevin Nicholson, left, and state Sen. Leah Vukmir, right, debate in Pewaukee Thursday.

PEWAUKEE — After an hour-long debate exposed no policy differences between Wisconsin’s top Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate, Kevin Nicholson and Leah Vukmir, the debate turned caustic in its waning moments over Nicholson’s military record and his criticisms of the state’s GOP establishment.

Vukmir asked Nicholson to apologize for, in her words, suggesting she did not respect his service in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “If it makes you feel better, I feel respected,” Nicholson shot back to a smattering of boos from the crowd.

Vukmir had said moments earlier that Nicholson, a former national president of the College Democrats, must prove his conservative track record.

“We know more about Kevin’s track record as a Democrat than we do about his track record as a Republican,” Vukmir said.

The last few minutes were a jarring end to what had been, until then, an anodyne debate — the first public contest between Vukmir, a Brookfield state senator, and Nicholson, a Delafield management consultant.

They are seeking the GOP nod to oppose Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, of Madison, in November.

Vukmir and Nicholson gave substantially similar answers to a string of questions about building a wall on the Mexico border, which both candidates support; health care, which both candidates said could be improved by repealing Obamacare and expanding patient choice; and giving veterans greater ability to seek taxpayer-funded treatment outside the VA system, which both candidates said they favor.

Other questions focused on public disclosure requirements for donors to nonprofit political advocacy groups, which both candidates said they oppose, and the recently enacted GOP tax law, which both candidates support.

The candidates’ differences were rooted in their backgrounds: Nicholson as a political newcomer, Marine Corp veteran and businessman, and Vukmir as a two-decade state lawmaker who helped enact a slew of landmark conservative laws since Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans took control of the state Legislature.

Nicholson frequently cited his service as a U.S. Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying those experiences formed his view of leadership. Having emphasized his political outsider credentials throughout the race, Nicholson said he would limit himself to no more than two terms in the Senate because “you should not become part of a political class.”

“We will not solve our problems by sending more of the political class to Washington,” Nicholson said.

The debate took a testy turn in Vukmir’s closing statement, when she said Wisconsin Republicans “can’t take chances on the unknown.”

“I have a track record that you can trust,” Vukmir said.

The debate came as the Republican Party of Wisconsin gears up for its state convention May 11-13, at which GOP delegates could endorse one of the candidates.

The primary has been contentious throughout, despite both candidates having signed a “unity pledge” to support the other regardless of the primary outcome.

Nicholson’s Democratic past, and the timeline of his shift to become a conservative Republican, has been a nagging issue. Some Vukmir supporters, such as former Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, have questioned the sincerity of Nicholson’s conversion.

Thursday’s event was hosted by Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin, the state chapter of the national conservative advocacy group funded by the billionaire Koch brothers.

The only Marquette Law School poll of the primary to date, conducted Feb. 25 to March 1, gave Nicholson an early lead over Vukmir, 28 percent to 19 percent. At this early stage, a majority of poll respondents who planned to vote in the Republican primary said they remained uncommitted.

Nicholson also has outpaced Vukmir in campaign fundraising thus far.

The Baldwin campaign declined to comment on Thursday’s debate and referred an inquiry to the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

“Leah Vukmir and Kevin Nicholson’s escalating personal attacks only add to the fact that they’re running to work for corporate special interests like the out-of-state billionaire Koch brothers and that they’ll do whatever it takes to protect Washington corruption,” Democratic Party of Wisconsin spokesman Brad Bainum said in a statement.

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Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.