Tommy Thompson, four-term Wisconsin governor and Republican Senate nominee, warmed up the audience for the main event — an exuberant, humorous, always biographical plea from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for Republicans to get their friends and neighbors to vote.
"You don't want to wake up and have Tommy miss by that much," Christie told a quiet luncheon of about 150 recently, imploring them to spend every day but Green Bay Packers' game day calling names in the Wisconsin phone book. "You don't want to say to yourself, 'I could have done something, I could have done a little more. I didn't listen to Christie. ... I didn't make a difference and now we have her as United States senator.'
"We don't want that."
"Her" is Rep. Tammy Baldwin, a seven-term liberal Democrat locked in an excruciatingly close race with the better known Thompson for the seat held by retiring Democrat Sen. Herb Kohl. Baldwin started hard early while Thompson struggled in a four-way GOP primary that left him bruised and underfunded. Republicans say he has revived his campaign in the closing weeks and holds a slight edge.
Both the presidential election in this battleground state and the Senate contest will be a true test of the ability of the competing campaigns to energize voters weary after Republican Gov. Scott Walker prevailed in a rancorous June recall vote. The election also stands as a tie-breaker on Wisconsin's political identity — the state backed President Barack Obama by 14 percentage points in 2008 but two years later elected Walker and tea party-backed Ron Johnson over incumbent Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold.
The Thompson-Baldwin race will help determine which party controls the Senate. Democrats hold a 53-47 advantage, with Republicans needing a net of four seats to grab the majority. If Republican Mitt Romney wins the presidency, the GOP will need just three: The vice president casts tie-breaking votes in the Senate.
Looking at Nov. 6 but also Wisconsin's in-person early voting that began this week, Christie pressed for a full-blown effort.
"I have all your names," he joked in the heart of Wisconsin nice. "When I come back, I'll be in a New Jersey mood."
Christie's appeal in Brown County, which went overwhelmingly Republican in 2010 after narrowly voting Democratic in 2008, reflects a number-crunching reality for the GOP. Strong voter turnout in increasingly Republican northeast Wisconsin is imperative to offset the heavy Democratic vote in more populous Dane County and the state capital of Madison, Baldwin's home and where she served on the board of supervisors in the 1980s and '90s.
"Dane County really could be a game-changer, particularly for Baldwin and the president," said Joe Parisi, the Dane County executive.
In 2008, more than 280,000 votes were cast in Dane County and Democrats won a whopping 73 percent of the vote to 26 percent for the GOP. Turnout decreased in 2010 — when the state picked a new governor and voted in congressional elections — as some 220,000 votes were cast in the county that still went heavily Democratic, 68-31 percent.
By comparison, some 123,000 voted in Brown County in 2008 when Democrats prevailed by 5 percentage points, and just over 86,000 voted in 2010 when it went Republican 56-43 percent.
State residents often recall the words of the unconventional Republican governor of the late 1970s, Lee Dreyfus, who quipped that Madison is "30 square miles surrounded by reality."
Baldwin said her campaign has volunteers across the state working to get to voters early and turn out as many as possible, especially on college campuses.
"In Wisconsin, you don't know what the weather will be on Election Day. Get it done early," she said.
She's certain to get help from the Obama campaign operation's 65 offices in the state, more than 150 staff members and thousands of volunteers.
Joe Zepecki, spokesman for the Obama campaign in Wisconsin, conceded that the president wouldn't match his 2008 performance of winning 59 of 72 counties, but predicted that registration drives, early voting and get out the vote efforts would push him to victory.
By comparison, the Romney campaign has 25 offices in the state, but Republicans have plenty of fresh experience in getting out the vote from June's recall. The basics such as in-person door-to-door appeals, providing transportation to polling locations and arranging for absentee ballots have been done repeatedly in the last two years.
"Wisconsin Republicans really have become professionals about getting out the vote," Thompson said.
The outcome of the presidential race is expected to determine the Senate race, especially for Baldwin, who doesn't have the same name recognition as the former governor, who also was health and human services secretary in George W. Bush's administration and a 2008 presidential candidate.
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