MADISON, Wis. — Republican Senate candidate Tommy Thompson, whose campaign abruptly lost momentum after enjoying a healthy lead all year, is being urged by worried supporters and insiders to raise his profile on the campaign trail and on TV to avoid being swamped by a Democratic surge in the state.
In the weeks since the Republican primary in August, the 70-year-old Thompson made only a handful of appearances in public or in TV ads while concentrating on fundraising to replenish a campaign treasury depleted by the intra-party race. His Democratic opponent, Tammy Baldwin, who was unopposed in the primary, was able to go on the air with advertising and also made more than two dozen appearances across the state.
Thompson backers' concerns about his campaign's direction have been growing in the wake of recent polls showing problems for Republicans in the state, including GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney. They are imploring Thompson to break out of the negative cycle by doing by what he did best in getting elected four times as governor: taking his campaign into communities to meet voters face to face.
The Wisconsin seat is one of several in the Midwest that the GOP is counting on to help win control of the Senate.
"Get back to the Tommy of Elroy that we had for 16 years, the guy who was all over the place," said Republican state Sen. Mike Ellis, a longtime Thompson backer. "Tommy Thompson still has a residual of good will out there. He's got to reinforce that."
One poll last week showed Thompson and Baldwin tied. Another, done by Marquette University Law School, showed an 18 point flip in the race, with Thompson going from a 9 point lead in August to being 9 points down in September. The margin of error on both of those polls was about 4 percentage points.
"Obviously I'm concerned," said Republican state Sen. Dale Schultz, a longtime Thompson backer. "If we really want to win this seat I think we have to dig a little deeper, work a little harder. ... Tommy's got to be out there and be Tommy." Thompson's gregarious style has been a major asset in previous campaigns.
Thompson's campaign spokeswoman Lisa Boothe said Thompson has been meeting with voters.
"The only place where Tommy hasn't been seen a much is with paid media, but that has recently changed," she said.
Since the Aug. 14 primary, Baldwin has spent about $1.7 million on television ads compared with about $750,000 from Thompson's campaign and the National Republican Senatorial Campaign, based on figures provided by the organizations. Outside groups this year have spent $5.3 million for Baldwin and $3.2 million for Thompson, according to a tally by the Center for Responsive Politics. On July 25, the last financial reporting deadline, Thompson had just $352,000 in cash on hand. Baldwin had $3.1 million.
Thompson released two ads last week in the wake of the bad poll numbers and two conservative groups — Karl Rove's political action committee and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — spent $1.7 million in spots last week attacking Baldwin.
Baldwin and Thompson are scheduled to meet in three debates over the next six weeks, with the first on Friday night. Both plan to step up campaign appearances and advertising.
The GOP has counted on winning the seat since longtime Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl announced his retirement earlier this year. Thompson, who was widely popular as governor from 1987 to 2001, was considered the odds-on favorite.
"He suffers from high expectations, too, because I think a lot of people looked at the race after the primary and said 'It's over,'" said Republican operative Brian Schimming who has known Thompson for 35 years. "I think there's concern out there. But I'm not panicked at all."
Thompson last week blamed his decline on Romney, who he said has become a drag for other Republicans in Wisconsin. "If you're a standard-bearer for the presidency is not doing well, it's going to reflect on the down ballot," Thompson said. The latest polls have shown Romney consistently trailing President Obama by high single digits, although the Marquette Law School had Romney down by 14.
Over the next six weeks, Thompson will push the message that Baldwin, who has ranked as one Congress' most liberal members, is out of the mainstream for Wisconsin, Boothe said.
"You'll see us defining Tammy Baldwin," Boothe said, while at the same time reminding voters why they liked Thompson as governor.
Baldwin, 50, a seven-term congresswoman from Madison, has stressed a message of representing the interests of the middle class. Her campaign has emphasized Thompson's time working for a major Washington law firm and serving on the boards of health care companies.
"What's working is laying out the choice for voters, which is what we've done," said Baldwin's spokesman John Kraus.