September 25, 2000





With Its Independent Streak, Wisconsin Remains a Tossup
By R. W. APPLE Jr.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The Associated Press
The race in Wisconsin is expected to be close, but Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, left, has been confident that Gov. George W. Bush will win the state.



REEN BAY, Wis., Sept. 22 After almost 14 years in office, more than any other governor in the state's history, Tommy G. Thompson bestrides Wisconsin politics like a colossus. He has built a national reputation as a reformer and innovator, and this summer he headed the committee that drafted the Republican platform in Philadelphia.

But he has never managed to carry his state for his party's presidential nominee. Not for Bob Dole four years ago, and not for George Bush in 1988 or 1992. He tried hard. On Halloween Day, 1992, he whistle- stopped across the state with Mr. Bush, from Mukwonago and Waukesha to Oshkosh and Chippewa Falls, a made-for-the-cameras trip on a train called the Spirit of America.

This time, the governor recently proclaimed, "I'm not worried."

If not, he is the only politician in Wisconsin who is not. The race between Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and Vice President Al Gore is breathlessly close here, in the estimation of political pros in both parties. Like several other Great Lakes states, this is one of the year's main presidential battlegrounds, although it is a bit smaller than most, with only 11 electoral votes.

Some recent private polls, like one taken for a big Wisconsin union, show an inconclusive edge for Mr. Gore; others show the race even.

This is a quirky state, politically speaking, hard to read, full of ticket- splitters and independents. It produced both the LaFollettes, the great clan of Progressive reformers, and the right-wing zealot Joseph R. McCarthy. Both of its senators, Herb Kohl and Russell D. Feingold, are Democrats, but both take offbeat positions on some issues and work closely with Republicans.

Ross Perot pulled 16 percent of the Wisconsin vote in 1992.

"We're 35 percent Republican and 35 percent Democratic and 35 percent independent," said Bill Dixon of Madison, a Democrat who managed Gary Hart's 1988 presidential campaign. "It doesn't add up, but then, neither do we."

Wisconsin is made to order, one might think, for Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate, and he campaigned here on Wednesday, pounding away at "the concentration of power in the hands of a few." Mr. Nader sounded a bit like Fighting Bob LaFollette, and he drew sizable crowds more than 1,000 at a rally in Milwaukee and about 1,800 in Madison. In a poll taken in June, he had 16 percent of the vote in traditionally liberal Dane County (Madison), and some Gore backers have warned that he could hurt Mr. Gore in that area.

The vice president's daughter Karenna Gore Schiff, who campaigned here on Tuesday, and other surrogates argue that a Nader vote is a Bush vote.

"I don't think they have much to fear," said John Bibby, a retired political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "The closer we get to Election Day, the more people will worry about throwing their vote away. He'll do well in Madison, but not so well elsewhere. Obviously, if it turns out to be really close, even a few percentage points could be decisive."

Mr. Nader is handicapped, of course, by a shortage of money and a resultant inability to match the major parties' television spending.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore have been saturating the state with commercials for months. According to a continuing national study by Kenneth Goldstein, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, they have spent $2.6 million in Green Bay and Milwaukee alone since June 1.

Those cities are two of the places where Mr. Gore has advertised most intensively; this summer, only Flint, Mich., Scranton, Pa., and Pittsburgh saw more Gore commercials than Green Bay and Milwaukee. This month, Green Bay has seen more Bush commercials than any other city except Scranton. This week, the Republicans were trumpeting the governor's new slogan, "Real plans for real people," and the Democrats were replying with the taunt, "George Bush's real plans hurt real people."

Nor have the candidates missed opportunities to campaign here. Mr. Bush spoke to the American Legion national convention in Milwaukee; both nominees spoke to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in August. Mr. Gore's first postconvention event was a riverboat trip down the Mississippi, complete with a Mark Twain impersonator, starting from La Crosse in southwest Wisconsin. Perhaps with an eye on possible defectors to Mr. Nader, Mr. Gore arranged for his erstwhile rival, former Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, to issue a belated endorsement here in Green Bay.

"Wisconsin," said Professor Goldstein, whose study is underwritten by the Pew Charitable Trusts, "is seeing action like it's never had before."

Jeff Mayers, a political reporter in Madison who runs a Web site that has been covering the campaign intensively (http://wispolitics.com), sees the election as a fight, in essence, between Governor Thompson's organization and the state's most powerful union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, a teachers' group with 90,000 members.

The union's president, Terry Craney, was one of the few Gore delegates at the 1988 Democratic convention, and his organization has helped to set up the vice president's major Wisconsin appearances in the last eight years. In 1996, it turned out a crowd of 30,000 for a Gore rally, one of the biggest political gatherings in state history.

Governor Thompson, who attributed the elder George Bush's 1988 defeat in Wisconsin to "just mistake after mistake" by Mr. Bush and his strategists, has helped Governor Bush raise money in the state. Several politicians here said they thought that in the event of a Republican victory in November, Mr. Thompson hoped to be named United States ambassador to Vatican City.

Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's top national strategist, said in Wisconsin on Thursday that Mr. Bush would return to the state three or four times before Election Day. Mr. Thompson's support, he asserted, will not transfer directly to Mr. Bush but will ensure that those who like the governor and his policies "give us a better hearing."

At the moment, Governor Bush is "a couple points up, a couple points down" in the state, Mr. Rove said.

Darren Schmitz, Mr. Thompson's former press secretary, is running the Bush operation in Wisconsin. He said the organizational foundation laid down over the years by Mr. Thompson would inevitably benefit Mr. Bush.

"But more important," Mr. Schmitz said, "education is the crucial issue in this race. We are an education state, and Governor Thompson is identified with education. He has poured $3 billion into education during his time in office. He has supported the charter school movement and Milwaukee's school voucher program, which is the most comprehensive one in the whole country."

National Democrats and the teachers' union oppose the voucher program, of course, but it is backed by Mayor John O. Norquist of Milwaukee, a four-term Democrat, and it finally triumphed in 1999 when voters ousted antivoucher members of the school board.

Still, Teresa Vilmain, Mr. Gore's top Wisconsin operative, thinks the vice president can win on education and such other issues as health care, the economy and the environment. In this state, Ms. Vilmain said, "we're fighting on our turf." Even so, she added: "It's going to be very tight. We only won here by a few points four years ago. It's totally challenging for us, because we are up against a Republican governor who is totally engaged in this fight."

Mr. Schmitz also sees a struggle to the end. Asked how things stand now, he replied, "I've seen private polls that show it dead even."

Milwaukee remains a major manufacturing city, and Wisconsin has a dozen or more smaller cities with sizable employers, like Wausau and Oshkosh. It also has a significant farm population, which supports the state's noted dairy industry. But here as elsewhere, the suburbs seem to hold the political key this year. Not coincidentally, one of the main Bush offices is in Wauwatosa, west of Milwaukee, a town with a goodly number of Reagan Democrats. Ronald Reagan carried Wisconsin twice, people here recall, and Richard M. Nixon carried it three times in each case with a lot of help from Democrats.

Any number of things could tip the race one way or the other.

Low prices for farm products, for instance. Or high oil prices. This is one of the states that is paying runaway sums for gasoline, and that is a topic mentioned by many voters when asked what issues are on their minds. But so far, they do not seem to have decided whom to blame for the increasingly large share of their budgets taken up by heating their houses and operating their cars.

Mr. Gore made a pre-emptive strike this week by calling on President Clinton to release some of the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and Mr. Bush replied at once, accusing him of playing politics with a major element of national security.

Another imponderable is the possible crosscurrents that Senator Kohl's re-election race could generate. A popular figure, he is expected to win easily, but he is not much of a team player his slogan is "nobody's senator but yours" and many of Wisconsin's ticket-splitters might find a Bush-Kohl combination attractive. Or so some Gore senior strategists speculate.