MADISON, Wis. — U.S. Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin used her speech at the Democratic National Convention on Thursday to take aim at prominent Wisconsin Republicans, saying they don't really know the state and only candidates like her will fight for the middle class.
Baldwin was given a brief but prime speaking slot just hours before President Barack Obama, and she used the national spotlight to outline her campaign platform and introduce herself to a boarder audience, telling the crowd: "I want you to hear about the Wisconsin I know."
The seven-term congresswoman from Madison said that in her Wisconsin, "we believe in hard work ... give our workers a fair shot, and we'll compete against anyone." She accused Republicans of wanting to "give up on our manufacturing sector."
Baldwin is well known in her congressional district but not statewide. The most recent poll in mid-August had her trailing her Republican opponent, former longtime Gov. Tommy Thompson, by 9 points. But it also showed 31 percent of voters didn't know her well enough to form an opinion.
Baldwin took a specific jab during her speech at Thompson, who worked as an attorney for a lobbying firm, saying he "went to Washington, cashed in on his special interest connections and never really came back."
Wisconsin Democrats have been in the shadow of the state's Republicans after GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney tagged Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate, and Gov. Scott Walker survived his recall election in June.
Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, is also from Wisconsin and was in the national spotlight last week as organizer of their convention.
Baldwin's speech came on the biggest night of the Democratic convention and highlighted the importance of her race as Democrats try to maintain the majority in the Senate. Republicans need to pick up four seats to take control, or just three if Romney is elected president.
Thompson, who was first elected to the Wisconsin Legislature in 1966 and served 14 years as governor, wasn't given a speaking slot at the GOP convention. Still, he's never lost a statewide election and in May survived a four-way Republican primary to face Baldwin, who had no opponent.
Thompson, 70, left the governor's office in 2001 and served four years as then-President George W. Bush's health secretary. After that, he worked as an attorney for a prominent Washington lobbying and law firm before returning to Wisconsin for the Senate race.
Baldwin, 50, was the first openly gay candidate to win election to the House in 1998. She is looking to become the first openly gay candidate elected to the Senate, and the first female senator from Wisconsin.
Baldwin made no direct reference to her sexuality in the speech, but she praised Obama for repealing the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.
"Republicans want to write discrimination into our Constitution," she said. "But the Wisconsin I know believes that with each passing year and each generation, our country must become more equal, not less."
Baldwin's sexuality has not been a focus of the campaign on either side, but on Thursday in advance of Baldwin's speech, Thompson's political director Brian Nemoir posted a Twitter message that said "T. Baldwin's 'The Wisconsin I know' -- Here's a quick intro" and then provided a link to video of Baldwin dancing at a 2010 gay pride festival to the "Wonder Woman" theme song. He also posted the link Wednesday.
Darrin Schmitz, Thompson's campaign consultant, said Nemoir acted on his own and was not representing the Thompson campaign. Baldwin's spokesman did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
During her speech, Baldwin said she supported adopting the "Buffett Rule," named after billionaire Warren Buffett, which calls for everyone earning a $1 million a year or more to pay at least 30 percent of their income in taxes.
Baldwin also highlighted her vote in 1999 against repealing the Glass-Steagall Act, a law dating back to the Great Depression that separated banking from high-risk financial speculation. Some argue the law's repeal paved the way for banks to invest in risky investments like mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations that played a role in the 2008 financial meltdown.
Thompson's campaign has tried to portray Baldwin as an out-of-touch liberal who would only add to the nation's $16 trillion debt.
"In the Wisconsin we know, you don't spend more money than you have, you don't kill jobs with overregulation, you don't fund a failed stimulus program or massive government expansion on the backs of our children and grandchildren," Thompson said in a statement after Baldwin's speech.
National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Lance Trover said Baldwin is "even more liberal" than Obama.
Baldwin's fortunes may depend on how well Obama does in Wisconsin. The presidential race and the open Senate seat, caused by the retirement of Democrat Herb Kohl, are the only two statewide races on the ticket.
Even though Obama carried Wisconsin by 14 points in 2008, the state has swung dramatically to the right since then. Polls have shown that Obama's narrow lead over Romney shrank with the addition of Ryan to the GOP ticket.
The state hasn't voted for a Republican for president since Ronald Reagan in 1984.