By Kathleen Foody and Nick Penzenstadler
Gannett Wisconsin Media

“Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”

The “11th Commandment,” popularized by Ronald Reagan, is a simple rule.

But deciding when to follow the order is anything but obvious for candidates in competitive primaries, including this year’s Republican primary for U.S. Senate in Wisconsin.

Whoever emerges from the fray Tuesday — state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, first-time candidate Eric Hovde, former congressman Mark Neumann or former governor Tommy Thompson — will face Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin in November.

The winner will have less than three months to focus on Baldwin, who’s been campaigning for nearly a year without a primary opponent to drain her campaign coffer or muddy her image with voters.

The four Republicans, meanwhile, are fending off attacks from all directions. All of them told Gannett Wisconsin Media this past week they would rather it wasn’t that way. They differ in whether they think it gives Baldwin an edge in November.

Hovde has shouldered his way to the front of the pack, pouring at least $4 million of his own money — earned as a hedge fund manager — into his campaign. He says he’s been ambushed by attack ads from outside groups backing Neumann, Thompson’s campaign and “Democrat special interests.”

“Everyone says this is nasty, but it’s nasty toward me. I’m not going to sit here as a complete punching bag,” Hovde said. “I haven’t been trying to destroy the other Republican candidates, but they sure have tried to do that to me. But that’s what career politicians do when they’re threatened.”

Hovde, a political newcomer, said he’s learned about the gamesmanship of a campaign and has come through a stronger candidate.

“It toughens you. It’s unfortunate that they’ve done such negative attacks, but at the same time, I’m the one who’s now in the best position to take on Tammy.”

A Marquette University Law School poll released Wednesday showed Hovde had whittled down a huge Thompson lead — 19 points in June — to 8 points. Thompson now is the favorite of 28 percent of likely Republican voters, Hovde the choice of 20 percent, putting Thompson’s lead within the poll’s 4.4 percentage point margin of error.

Neumann is within striking distance with 18 percent, followed by Fitzgerald, with 13 percent. A large number of respondents — 21 percent — remained undecided.

If he wins the nomination, Hovde plans to “go right into the heart of Tammy’s base.”

“I’m going into the Hispanic communities and the black churches … to talk about our shared beliefs on a lot of issues,” Hovde said. “I think far too often Republican candidates don’t pay attention to groups we can make a strong case to.”

Out in front

Thompson’s front-runner status was built during decades of public service, and it’s a point of pride for him. He says he’s been misrepresented by the same third-party groups that Hovde says attacked him. He, too, says he couldn’t sit idle while missiles were launched from other campaigns.

“Every time you have a negative hit it gives ammunition to the opposition,” Thompson said. “I don’t think negative campaigning is good for the system, but it works. Individual voters want to think the worst, and they buy into this stuff.”

Thompson said he anticipates a race with Baldwin to fall squarely on the issue of health care.

If he wins Tuesday, Thompson’s campaign will shift at midnight to full general election mode.

“You solidify your base and account for those who voted for diversion candidates,” Thompson said. “You do that in August and September, and then from September 15 to November you have to prepare to go toe-to-toe with the Democrats.”

‘We’ll come together’

Neumann, who served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1990s, has benefited from the tea party movement, but also says he doesn’t have control over every message coming from outside groups, especially the negative ones.

His campaign, he said, will stick to its appeal to traditional conservative voters. As Neumann argued at a recent radio debate in Green Bay, truthful ads that differentiate candidates’ records are fair game even if those are perceived as negative.

“If we wake up (as) winners Wednesday we’ll work at organizing that 12-week period of time,” Neumann said. “The essence of the campaign won’t change at all. That essence is focused on conservative principles.”

Neumann’s ads have targeted President Barack Obama and what Neumann says is out-of-control spending. He said his team has plenty of research ready to spring on Baldwin that will show her “liberal agenda.”

“I think we’ll come together. If Tommy Thompson wins we’ll come together behind him; if Mark Neumann wins, they’ll come together behind us,” Neumann said. “The Democrats couldn’t get unified in the (gubernatorial) recall and that hurt them a lot. It’s important that we pull together.”

Opened door

State Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald says all the negative campaigning by the Republican front-runners and their proxies has opened a door for him. He’s seized the opportunity to focus on Baldwin, and he thinks it’s paying off.

Fitzgerald acknowledges that the Republicans have just handed to Baldwin attacks against the eventual nominee by his own colleagues, but he said whoever wins Tuesday will have no trouble setting the stage for November.

“It’s going to be pretty clear cut with a clear contrast between political ideologies,” Fitzgerald said. “It’ll be a classic liberal vs. a classic conservative. Politicians say it a lot, but this is the most important election you’ll see in a lifetime.”

Despite the primary’s nasty nature, Fitzgerald said he’s always liked primaries because they sharply define a candidate and provide momentum into the fall.

“Even though they’re bruising, you can come together on the same team after the primary.” Fitzgerald said. “But when you have people bitter and sore into that general election, you run into trouble.”

Awaiting the winner

Baldwin said she hasn’t paid much attention to her GOP rivals, and won’t turn her attention to the nominee until he’s chosen Tuesday. Each of the Republican candidates, however, is “disconnected from reality,” she said.

“It’s been quite something to watch this increasingly negative and divisive Republican primary,” Baldwin said. “But what’s been most profound to me has been how out of touch their debate with one another is with the challenges Wisconsin families are facing.”

She said she consistently hears from people that they’re frustrated with partisan games and gridlock and a struggling middle class.

She pledged to emphasize the “clear contrasts” on a wide range of national issues once a GOP nominee is determined.

“I haven’t delved into the details of all the candidates, but I’m sure others on my team have,” Baldwin said. “Whoever is the nominee because of this divisiveness will come out of this primary in a weakened condition.”

Democratic battles

Overall the state’s elections don’t provide much information about the effect that breaking the “11th Commandment” can have on the outcome of a general election, said Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Many of them get nasty, but the conditions shaping the general election appear to be more important than how bruised a candidate gets while winning the party nomination,” Burden said.

Republican candidates aren’t the only ones to attack each other in tough primaries. Wisconsin’s political history includes examples of Democrats slugging it out before a general election.

Former Sen. Russ Feingold won his first statewide primary in 1992, emerging as the surprise winner in a three-candidate field after congressman Jim Moody and businessman Joe Checota relentlessly attacked each other in a high-spending, TV ad-driven campaign.

Baldwin compares this race to her 1998 bid to replace Republican Rep. Scott Klug after he retired. She ran in a four-way Democratic primary and defeated Jo Musser, who emerged from a six-way Republican primary.

Former Gov. Jim Doyle won his 2002 race for governor against Republican incumbent Scott McCallum despite a tough primary challenge from Tom Barrett and Kathleen Falk.

McCallum, who is now president of a global food supply chain firm, Aidmatrix in Texas, projected a Thompson victory with a multi-candidate field eating away at undecided voters. He said his predecessor’s name recognition is unparalleled.

A race between Thompson and Baldwin in November would be “very competitive,” said McCallum, who served as governor after Thompson from 2001 to 2003 until losing to Doyle.

“After the primary, it’s no longer shades of who is more conservative; it becomes pretty clear that whoever it is will be a better alternative to one of the most liberal people in Congress,” McCallum said.

Russ Darrow, the car dealership owner who was knocked out in a Republican primary to challenge Feingold in 2002, said he’s disappointed in the tone of this year’s GOP Senate primary. He’s been a Thompson supporter since the former governor declared for the race, but doesn’t like watching Republicans beat each other up.

“There’s been such an outcry from everybody, from Governor Walker to the media, that they should give it up, just get nice and talk about themselves,” Darrow said.