The third debate between Wisconsin's U.S. Senate candidates, former Gov. Tommy Thompson and U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, would best be described as a smackdown.
The Friday night debate at Marquette University Law School had all the energy and theatrics of a WWE event but, unlike professional wrestling, the animosity between the protagonists was not staged. Tammy and Tommy don't like each other, and it shows.
When it was all over, though, Baldwin had taken quite a beating from the governor. Oh, she fought back, but Thompson's victory was almost as decisive as Mitt Romney's drubbing of Barack Obama in their first debate. Thompson was loaded for bear, and he delivered blow after pounding blow against Baldwin's record, while drawing unflattering contrasts with his own.
It was a startling change from Thompson's lackluster and almost somnolent debate performances during the Senate primary. He was on fire, and, unlike debate number two, stopped himself from using the words "ladies and gentlemen" until his closing statement.
A few exchanges were especially painful for the congresswoman. One concerned efforts that each candidate would make to create jobs in the state. Tommy said he would support the Keystone pipeline, and immediately began rattling off facts and figures on which Wisconsin employers would benefit and the number of new jobs that would be created.
Tammy vaguely stated that she would build on efforts to support the state's paper industry before adding that she would also help solar panel and auto parts firms. Thompson responded that Baldwin opposed the Keystone pipeline and all the good Wisconsin jobs it would have created. Moreover, she sided with the EPA instead of the Wisconsin paper industry in a dispute where the paper companies pleaded unsuccessfully for her support, leading to the loss of 7,500 jobs.
Baldwin offered a weak-tea defense that she didn't support the Keystone pipeline because it wasn't following the rules and never addressed Thompson's charge about the EPA and the paper industry, which completely undermined her answer to the question.
There were also some tense moments regarding Baldwin's vote against commemorating the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Thompson noted that Baldwin was one of only 22 votes in the House against the bill, which even unapologetic liberals like Nancy Pelosi voted for. He also linked this vote to Baldwin's refusal to vote for Iranian sanctions or to condemn Iranian President Ahmadinejad for denying the Holocaust. Baldwin expressed outrage that Thompson was questioning her patriotism but failed to explain why she voted against these bills, which seem like no-brainers -- she claimed only that the 9/11 resolution "politicized" the event and glorified George Bush's military policies.
Baldwin clearly hates the ads that Thompson is running against her on these issues, but the inability to defend these votes was astonishing and could cost her dearly with independent and swing voters.
With 10 days to go until the election, each candidate is clearly trying to paint his or her opponent as unacceptable. Thompson's position is that Baldwin is simply too extreme, citing her 9/11 vote and a political career supporting single payer health insurance as examples. Baldwin says that Thompson is out of touch with ordinary people and has become a well-heeled fat cat since his days in government.
Unfortunately for her, few people in politics come across as more of a regular guy than Tommy Thompson. He not only deflected Baldwin's charges, but turned them against her by using each as an opportunity to trumpet the things he's done for Wisconsin as governor. Add in a few well-placed references to the Packers -- Thompson said that under his tax plan, people would be able to do their taxes during the halftime of a game with the Bears -- and it was a good night for Tommy, as he turned in his best debate performance of the campaign.