With less than a week until Wisconsin's hotly contested U.S. Senate primary, the Republican race is growing more competitive as all three candidates appear to have a pathway victory.
The GOP primary, with the winner taking on likely Democratic nominee Tammy Baldwin for the seat of retiring Democrat Herb Kohl, had looked like a battle between former Gov. Tommy Thompson and political newcomer Eric Hovde, but polls show former Rep. Mark Neumann surging of late with backing from several tea party groups.
The three men have engaged in a fierce, often negative, campaign over the past month in hopes of coming out on top with voters Tuesday.
"Everybody has attacked everybody else," said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll which has tracked the race. "That shows that all three see each other as serious competitors and attack two others at once rather than concentrating on one competitor."
The candidates are competing along with state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald for the nomination to take on Ms. Baldwin, who is unopposed in the Democratic primary, in the general election. The race is likely to be one of the most closely watched of the fall campaign, with control of the Senate in 2013 hanging in the balance. As recently as mid-June, Mr. Thompson — who was governor from 1987 to 2001 and is still widely popular in the state — looked like the huge favorite in the GOP race until Mr. Hovde, a hedge fund manager who has put more than $4 million of his own money into the campaign, spent heavily on ad time that helped vault him into a virtual dead heat with the front-runner.
A poll released late last month by We Ask America showed Mr. Hovde and Mr. Thompson tied at 23 percent and Mr. Neumann within striking distance at 17 percent, while a poll released last week by Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling showed Mr. Hovde with 28 percent and Mr. Thompson and Mr. Neumann tied at 23 percent.
A Marquette poll Wednesday shows Mr. Thompson with an eight-point lead over Mr. Hovde and a 10-point lead over Mr. Neumann, but also shows that 21 percent of GOP primary voters are still undecided.
Political analysts say Mr. Hovde gained an early advantage by hitting the airwaves with campaign ads weeks before the other candidates, but all three of the top candidates all have upped their advertising in the past month, which has leveled the playing field as they try to pick up undecided voters.
"There was a credibility hurdle that [Mr. Hovde] needed to pass as an outsider, and advertising helps," said Eric Ostermeier, a political analyst at the University of Minnesota. "I don't think we've reached a saturation point."
Perhaps the biggest target in the race has been Mr. Thompson, who has had to fight charges from the other candidates that he is too moderate and has had to backtrack on comments he made in 2009 supporting Democrats' efforts to reform health care.
Mr. Hovde has had to battle charges that he is an inexperienced candidate who is trying to buy the race after working and living in Washington for 25 years, while Mr. Neumann has been attacked as too much of a Capitol Hill insider after serving in the House from 1995 to 1999.
He and Mr. Hovde have fought to position themselves as the most conservative candidate in the race and split endorsements from tea party groups. Mr. Hovde has support from the FreedomWorks PAC, while Mr. Neumann is backed by Club for Growth and received a crucial endorsement last week from Tea Party Express, which backed Republican Ted Cruz in his upset Texas Senate primary victory over Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst July 31.
Mr. Neumann hopes to follow in the footsteps of Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who rode tea party backing to a win in 2010, but a tighter three-way race could give Mr. Thompson an edge by splitting the insurgent conservative vote between the two other frontrunners.
Mr. Franklin said the race still appears too difficult to call and that many voters could be influenced by a GOP debate on Friday and heavy advertising in the final week.
"It's hard to say it has snuck up on people, but a lot of people are just starting to pay attention to it," he said.
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