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Wisconsin took center stage today with the announcement that Rep. Paul Ryan will be the GOP's candidate for vice president. But by Tuesday, the Badger State could be defined as much by a too-close-to-call Senate primary as by its newly elevated native son.
Tuesday is primary day in the state, and the race to win the Republican nomination for its open Senate seat has been described by operatives on the ground and inside the Beltway as "a coin flip." Polling shows a near-tie between former Gov. Tommy Thompson and tea-party-backed businessman Eric Hovde, with Ryan's predecessor in the House, Mark Neumann, running several points behind.
In the midst of that turbulent environment, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his new running mate will visit Waukesha, where they will be joined by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.
Whether Ryan's move to the national ticket will have an immediate effect on local voters is unclear. Ad time is locked up, and all the candidates have dug in on their messages. But the same qualities that make Ryan so polarizing nationally - that he galvanizes conservatives for him and Democrats against him - could have local effects down the line as Wisconsin Republican hopefuls rushed today to grab his coattails.
"Absolutely," Thompson said in a press call, when asked whether the Ryan announcement helps with his campaign. "There's no question about it. I think most people know that Paul and I are close friends and that we teamed up on many issues, especially on Medicare.
"The worst thing that could happen [would be to have a] Senate still controlled by [Majority Leader] Harry Reid with Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan" in the White House trying to enact entitlement reform into law, Thomspson continued, noting he had made suggestions to Ryan's controversial budget plan that would transition Medicare into a voucher-like system by 2020.
Thompson, who has been slipping in the polls, made the most aggressive effort to tie himself to Ryan, though Neumann also released a statement.
The flipside, however, is that by November, Democrats will have spent months trying to define Ryan as an "extreme" conservative whose entitlement reforms and cuts to the budget are outside mainstream thinking. And those sound bites of candidates tying themselves to Ryan might end up hurting more than helping. In many ways, the Republican candidates in Wisconsin touting Ryan are taking the same risk Romney is.