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Previewing the Wisconsin Senate Primary Previewing the Wisconsin Senate Primary

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Previewing the Wisconsin Senate Primary

Is Neumann Surging? For a while, it appeared as though the former congressman was headed for third place. Thanks to an onslaught of early television spending, Hovde emerged earlier this summer as the most likely alternative to Thompson. But Neumann's stock is on the rise. In the most recent Marquette poll, Neumann jumped 11 points from the previous month, pulling into a statistical tie with Hovde for second place. Television ad spending in the final week of the campaign also favors the former congressman. Neumann's team hopes they are the next in a line of come-from-behind winners in GOP Senate primaries this year. They point to Deb Fischer in Nebraska, Ted Cruz in Texas and Todd Akin in Missouri as examples of underdogs whose late momentum propelled them to surprise victories in crowded GOP primaries. "The surging candidate with momentum wins," Neumann campaign manager Chip Englander said. "And that's Mark Neumann." Who Has Won The Battle To Define Hovde? Hovde, who made a fortune running a financial firm in Washington, D.C., has spent millions of his personal wealth introducing himself to Wisconsin voters. And it has paid off. He started the race as an unknown, first-time candidate but quickly established himself as a serious threat to win the nomination. In recent weeks, though, Hovde has been savaged by negative ads, more so than any other candidate in the race. Thompson and Neumann have both attacked Hovde. Several outside groups, including the Club for Growth (which backs Neumann and employs former Neumann aides) and Americans for Jobs Security, have joined in, questioning Hovde's credentials as a fiscal conservative. All told, more than $1.5 million worth of TV ads has been spent attacking Hovde, according to a GOP source tracking ad buys in the state. With voters having no prior opinion of Hovde, the crafting of his image was up for grabs when he entered the race. Hovde's campaign has portrayed him as a conservative businessman with the financial chops to take on the nation's pressing fiscal problems. It's the same narrative that carried Sen. Ron Johnson from relative obscurity to a win over former Sen. Russ Feingold, and Hovde tapped On Message Inc, the same media firm used by Johnson, to craft his television ads. They put Hovde front-and-center in the spots, often having the candidate speak directly into the camera. Hovde's team is optimistic that all the face time has given voters a sense of familiarity with Hovde, making it less likely the attacks will stick. Is Fitzgerald Saving Thompson? A portrait of Thompson hangs on the wall of Fitzgerald's office in the state capitol. Fitzgerald declined to remove the picture during the campaign, and now the Assembly speaker might just help Thompson eke out a victory. Thompson's declining poll numbers have opened the door for another candidate, but the more the anti-Thompson vote is divided, the more likely the former governor can hold onto his lead. Fitzgerald's recent polling jump -- he went from 9 percent in July to 15 percent in August in the Marquette poll -- further splinters that vote. If Thompson has a baseline of support somewhere around 30 percent, as some polling indicates, having three other candidates finishing in the double-digits makes his path to victory significantly clearer. Fitzgerald's polling spike has left some observers scratching their heads. While his sheparding of Walker's conservative agenda through the state legislature provided him with a compelling campaign narrative, Fitzgerald's fundraising has been anemic throughout the campaign. He released one television ad but with very little money behind it. Fitzgerald's support is confined entirely to the Milwaukee media market. His poll numbers in that region are above 20 percent but in the single digits in the rest of the state. Fitgerald hails from nearby Dodge County, and he is a hit on conservative talk radio, which plays a bigger role in Wisconsin politics than in most other states. "Fitzgerald has done well in the talk radio listenership, which is exactly where if you were Neumann or Hovde you'd want to break out," said Charlie Sykes, one of the state's most influential radio hosts. Is Walker Backing Thompson? Walker said this week that he's not endorsing any candidate in the race, but that didn't stop Thompson's campaign from rolling out a new television spot that could give the impression that the governor has declared his support for Thompson. The ad highlights positive remarks Walker has made about Thompson's record, and the Thompson campaign says they cleared the language in the ad with Walker before running it. Walker's popularity is sky-high among GOP voters in the state, so Thompson benefits from giving off the impression that he's won Walker's backing. Some GOP insiders in Wisconsin have speculated that Walker and some of his allies are privately supporting Thompson, but remaining officially neutral out of respect for Fitzgerald, one of Walker's closest allies in the legislature. The one candidate least likely to receive any kind of support from Walker -- public or otherwise -- is Neumann. The former congressman finished second to Walker in the 2010 gubernatorial primary, and some Walker backers remain sore over the criticisms Neumann lobbed at Walker during that campaign. Hovde released a television ad last week reminding voters of Neumann's rocky relationship with the popular governor. Who Is The Strongest General Election Candidate? Some Democrats privately admit that Thompson would make a formidable opponent, thanks to his decades in the public eye and familiarity with independents and moderate Democrats. The former governor has consistently run several points ahead of the other Republican candidates in polling match-ups with Baldwin. On the surface, Neumann appears to be the weakest general election candidate. For months, he has bragged about being rated one of the most conservative members of the House during his time in Congress. While that message works in a GOP primary, it could come back to haunt him against Baldwin. Republicans have tried to paint the congresswoman as too far to the left for the state, and Neumann's rhetoric makes it more difficult to paint her as the extremist in the race. But GOP insiders praise Neumann's discipline as a candidate, and the Club for Growth and other conservative groups likely would spend millions on his behalf this fall. Like Johnson, Hovde plans to play up his status as an outsider from the business world. His demonstrated willingness to spend millions of his own money on his campaign should worry Democrats. But the most obvious attacks on Hovde -- that he is a wealthy, out-of-touch, venture capitalist -- perfectly mirror those Democrats are already making against Romney. Democrats are optimistic that the eventual GOP nominee will emerge from Tuesday's primary a weakened candidate. Thompson, Hovde, Neumann and their outside group allies have spent the last several weeks bloodying each other in attack ads, to the delight of the Baldwin campaign.

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