By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — There’s no arguing the point. Tommy Thompson is not going to debate.
At least not anytime soon.
And it’s unclear whether the former governor and, according to polls and pundits, the front-runner in Wisconsin’s nationally watched U.S. Senate race, is going to debate his fellow Republican opponents at all leading up to August’s primary.
“Unfortunately, due to a prior engagement, Governor Thompson will not be able to attend the upcoming debate,” said Thompson spokesman Vartan Djihanian. “The governor tried to move his calendar around, but unfortunately he was not able to do so. He feels it is important to honor his commitments.”
Djihanian could not immediately say what prior engagement the governor is scheduled to attend April 11, the day of the debate at the Waukesha County Exposition Center in Waukesha.
Wisconsin Reporter sent out the formal invitations to five U.S. Senate campaigns, including Thompson’s, several weeks ago. Informal invitations through phone calls and emails began going out to the campaigns in early February.
The Thompson campaign did not respond to any of several invitations, including one emailed as recently as Tuesday, and did not return more than a dozen phone calls and many more emails from Wisconsin Reporter.
The other candidates appearing — Wisconsin’s former 1st District U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann, state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, investment fund manager and developer Eric Hovde, and physical therapist Kip Smith — all responded within a few weeks of the invitation, committing to the debate.
Asked why the first time the campaign officially contacted Wisconsin Reporter about the event was late Wednesday afternoon, Djihanian said, “Up until very recently we’ve been trying to move the calendar around to accommodate the invitation.
“That’s why we are letting you know now,” the spokesman said.
Thompson’s opponents expressed disappointment that the former four-term governor would be missing another debate.
Thompson passed up the first two formal debates of the campaign season last month in Manitowoc and Appleton.
His opponents said Thompson begged off the Appleton debate, sponsored by tea party group the Fox Valley Initiative, not long before the event. The organization, which could not be reached for comment, left an empty chair for the candidate at the debate.
Djihanian could not confirm the account.
“Eric believes our nation is heading toward a financial cliff,” said Hovde press secretary Sean Lansing. “That is why he’s running, because he has a profound concern about the direction of this country. To that end, he feels very strongly that people of this state absolutely deserve to learn where all of the candidates state on the issues.
“Our hope is that everyone would participate,” Lansing said.
One political expert said he suspects Thompson is playing the “Rose Garden Strategy,” taking the safe route of the front-runner and staying away from confrontation with candidates.
“He’s got better name identification at the polls, and he’s still well liked,” said Joe Heim, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. “He’s probably figuring this is a safer strategy not to get involved in this unless he had to.”
Polls consistently have shown Thompson ahead of the Republican pack, and the latest Rasmussen Report telephone survey of likely voters in Wisconsin indicates Thompson with a 4 percentage point advantage over U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Madison, the Democrats’ sole serious candidate. The survey of 500 voters, conducted on March 27, had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percent.
Heim said Thompson may have good reason to avoid debating.
“He might see this as a potential lose-lose situation,” he said, noting that his trailing opponents are likely to “gang up” on Thompson.
Neumann, considered by many pundits as Thompson’s toughest challenger in the battle for Wisconsin’s conservative vote, shied away from outright criticism of Thompson, sticking to the campaign’s his question message: Would the real conservative please stand up?
“Mark’s the most conservative candidate in the race and he’ll win any debate about his plan to balance the budget and repeal ObamaCare,” said Neumann spokesman Chip Englander.
Djihanian said it is “completely absurd” to assert the former governor has been absent at public events.
“The governor just made a joint appearance with the candidates in Waukesha hosted by (conservative talk show host) Charlie Sykes,” the Thompson official said.
That event, however, was not a debate but a forum with Republican Party leaders and candidates.
Sykes is expected to serve as a panelist at Wisconsin Reporter’s debate.
Asked if Thompson will appear at future Senate debates, Djihanian said the governor is looking forward to making “joint appearances in the future.”
Pressed whether that meant the governor would debate, Djihanian said, “I think I just gave you my answer.”