MILWAUKEE (AP) — The four Republicans running for Wisconsin's U.S. Senate seat were cordial in their speeches during a candidate forum Wednesday, reserving attacks on each other for negative TV commercials.
The candidates made separate appearances before about 150 business leaders at the Milwaukee Athletic Club. Each candidate was given 30 minutes alone on stage to deliver a speech and take questions. The candidates never appeared to cross paths or talk to each other directly.
All four limited their comments to standard talking points about their backgrounds and professional experience. They made occasional references to President Barack Obama or to their Democratic rival, U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, but specifically refrained from attacks on each other.
However, the sniping has already begun in earnest on TV. The primary is less than four weeks away on Aug. 14, and the tone is likely to grow even more negative as trailing candidates feel a growing urgency to knock down the front-runner - former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson.
Former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann had been the early beneficiary of ads paid for by the Club for Growth, a conservative anti-tax interest group that ran a campaign attacking both Thompson and political newcomer Eric Hovde.
Neumann stepped up those attacks Tuesday with his own ad that questions Hovde's conservative credentials, criticizes his $500 donation to Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle and likens Hovde to Obama.
Hovde wasted no time in landing a counterpunch, responding with an ad Wednesday accusing Thompson and Neumann of slinging mud in an attempt to distract attention from their own poor records.
In a recent poll by the Marquette University law school, Thompson led the field with 35 percent support among respondents who identified themselves as likely primary voters. Hovde was second at 23 percent, followed by Neumann at 10 percent and state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald at 6 percent. Another 25 percent were undecided.
Thompson focused Wednesday on his political experience, including his 14 years as governor and his term as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush.
He said the new senator will be thrown into the fire right away with pressing issues, including extending the Bush tax cuts and repealing Obama's health care reform. Those situations call for a lawmaker who's already familiar with how Washington works, he argued.
Neumann touted his own experience as a congressman from 1995 to 1999. He recounted a story in which Republican leaders asked him to follow party lines and vote for a pork-laden budget even though they didn't explain the source of the money.
Neumann said he voted against the bill, even after fellow Republicans warned that doing so could end his career. Instead, he said, his example helped usher in a new era of fiscal restraint, and he hoped to do the same as a senator.
Hovde spoke of the need for the federal government to spend more responsibly. He said if elected, his priorities would include reforming the tax system, fighting for broad deregulation across a number of industries and pushing for more hydraulic fracturing, a drilling practice to extract natural gas and oil from shale rock.
Fitzgerald acknowledged his role as the underdog, but said he expected to benefit from voter fatigue. He said he expects a low turnout in the primary, an outcome he said would benefit his campaign. He also pledged to keep his campaign positive.
The four Republican candidates will meet for a debate on July 30 in Green Bay. A second debate is tentatively scheduled for the Friday before the primary.
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