In a rarely used debate format, Wisconsin Senate candidates Tommy Thompson (R), a former governor, and Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D) were permitted to directly spar with each other in unmoderated six-minute chunks on topics picked by voters.
The hourlong debate in Wausau played very much like an extended, spliced-together greatest hits video of Thompson and Baldwin campaign ads, an at times heated back-and-forth defined more by established talking points than off-the-cuff remarks. Given that predictability, and in a race that's too close to call 19 days before Election Day, it's unclear whether either candidate was able to sway the few remaining undecided voters in ways their media operations can't.
The debaters addressed the 2010 health care law, with Baldwin in favor and Thompson opposed; the deficit crisis, with Baldwin calling for higher-earning Americans to pay more and Thompson accusing the Democrat of being a tax-and-spender; and even Wisconsin's own vice presidential candidate, with Baldwin calling Rep. Paul Ryan's budget extreme and Thompson trying to distance himself after telling reporters in August that "most people know that Paul and I are close friends and that we teamed up on many issues, especially on Medicare."
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll released earlier this evening had Baldwin leading Thompson 49 percent to 45 percent. A Marquette University poll released Wednesday had Thompson leading Baldwin 46 percent to 45 percent. Sources on both sides of the aisle, in Wisconsin and in Washington, D.C., say that Wisconsin's Senate contest is among the most competitive in the country and could be decisive in determining the chamber's majority. Roll Call rates the race as a Tossup.
"There's a clear contrast in this race," Baldwin said in her closing statements, echoing her talking points from throughout the debate. "Tommy likes to talk a lot about what he did as governor in the 1980s and 1990s. But the fact remains that he has spent his last seven years as a partner at a big, powerful Washington lobbying firm that lobbies on behalf of those same special interests I've spent my career fighting against."
Baldwin and affiliated Democratic groups have been campaigning for weeks on the slogan, "Tommy: He's not for us anymore."
On the flip side, Thompson continued to drive home his message of Baldwin being too extreme for Wisconsin voters. His repetition of talking points regarding Baldwin raising taxes and Democrats increasing the deficit were especially brutal at times, particularly in a format where he could talk to her directly without the interjection of moderators. He also spent much of his time focusing on his record as governor — a double-edged sword given his popularity at the time but also Baldwin's message that his governorship was long ago.
"Our country is facing a fiscal cliff, and if we don't do something about it, we're headed for a fiscal abyss. Who's the best person to do it? Somebody that's cut taxes 91 times or somebody who's raised taxes 155 times?" Thompson said. "We're Americans. We can change this. We can balance the budget, bring those jobs back so 23 million Americans are able to have a job just like they did when I was governor of the state of Wisconsin."
One of the most animated moments of the evening came toward the end of the debate, when Baldwin and Thompson were both trying to get a word in edge-wise without their media mediators. The Republican got aggressive in cutting his opponent off, accusing Baldwin of trying to filibuster debate time like Vice President Joseph Biden in his debate with Ryan last week.
"If you want to interrupt me, Joe Biden. ... Let me finish!" Thompson retorted, to some boos from the crowd.