By the end of the night in Wisconsin, the exchanges between former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson and Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin seemed less like a debate than a fight between two candidates desperate to beat one another and exhausted from the battle.
The blows have become personal in the Badger State, where the Senate race has devolved from big issues such as the economy and health care to the candidate's responses to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
That Senate candidates in Wisconsin are re-litigating a dark period from more than a decade ago, through both television ads and verbal sparring sessions, reveals a stark reality: The effort by each campaign to make the other candidate seem less appealing in the election's closing days knows few bounds and is deemed essential to capture the open seat.
"I believe you should never politicize 9/11," Baldwin said during a charged moment in the debate.
"Words are important, as are deeds, and that's where our work on the responders bill comes in and that's where there could not be a sharper contrast," Baldwin continued, before challenging Thompson on first-responder programs initiated during his tenure as Health and Human Services Secretary under President George W. Bush, and again on his role as head of a Wisconsin-based health care firm granted an $11 million federal contract to provide medical care for first responders.
"I never question her patriotism, I question her judgment," Thompson said of Baldwin's 2006 vote against a 9/11 memorial resolution that included language touting some of the Bush administration's initiatives, including the 2001 anti-terrorism law known as the USA PATRIOT Act. He noted that every other Wisconsin lawmaker supported the resolution, as did Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), one of Bush's harshest critics.
In his remarks, Thompson recounted his emotional memories of being at Ground Zero, holding workers in his arms. He was the first cabinet secretary to visit the site, but now there is even a debate over whether he's embellished his record by saying he arrived in New York on Sept. 12, 2001, instead of Sept. 13, as records indicate.
The fight over 9/11, which Thompson launched Tuesday with the release of an ad titled "Dangerous Path" based on Baldwin's vote against the memorial resolution, seems out of step with the economy-focused debate happening across the country. With just 10 days until Election Day, most candidates are zeroing in on unemployment, the deficit, current national security issues, education and immigration.
The effects of the dueling ads released by the campaigns on Wisconsin voters is not yet known. But before this week, Baldwin and Thompson were more disliked than they were liked in recent polls, and the use of 9/11 to cement their respective messages could make them even more unlikable. Thompson's narrative of Baldwin being "too extreme" for Wisconsin and Baldwin's slogan, "Tommy: He's not for us anymore" serve as the undercurrent even of the 9/11 rhetoric. Thompson cites Baldwin's vote as evidence that she's out of step with most of the state's voters. Baldwin says Thompson profited at the expense of 9/11 victims?
But the candidates agree on one thing.
"Voters have a clear choice in front of them," Baldwin said in her closing remarks, a sentiment clearly shared by Thompson, who stressed, "I'm Thommy Thompson. I was governor of this state for 14 years."
With all the talk of the past, it's hard to say in this race, which Roll Call rates as a Tossup, who voters will choose for their future.