SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
Republicans in Wisconsin are gathered this weekend for their annual political convention. The delegates could make an endorsement in a key Senate race this year. It is the contest to replace retiring Wisconsin Democrat Herb Kohl.
Now, many believe that George W. Bush's former Health and Human Services Secretary, Tommy Thompson, might essentially breeze through a four-way Republican primary.
But as Chuck Quirmbach of Wisconsin Public Radio reports, wealthy opponents and a more conservative Republican electorate seem to be testing the 70-year-old Thompson.
CHUCK QUIRMBACH, BYLINE: Tommy Thompson was Wisconsin governor for a record-setting 14 years, before working in George W. Bush's cabinet. Thompson hasn't run the state since 2001. But he boasted to a recent forum that he's the Senate candidate who can help presidential contender Mitt Romney win Wisconsin this fall.
TOMMY THOMPSON: We haven't carried the state of Wisconsin as a Republican since Ronald Reagan's second term. You're gonna have to have somebody able to bring the votes back to the Republican side and I've carried the state of Wisconsin five times.
QUIRMBACH: As governor, Thompson built a conservative record of backing school vouchers and toughening welfare laws. But he spent a lot of tax dollars doing so. That's left an opening for fiscal conservatives who are trying to block Thompson from getting the state GOP endorsement this weekend, and defeat him in Wisconsin's primary election in August.
One of Thompson's primary opponents has been spending a small fortune on TV commercials.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)
ERIC HOVDE: The path the politicians gave us is destroying our children's future.
QUIRMBACH: That's hedge fund manager Eric Hovde talking about the national debt while walking up a mock bar graph of red ink. The wealthy businessman is making his first try for public office and taking a swipe at longtime politicians like Tommy Thompson.
HOVDE: Albert Einstein had that famous quote, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Electing career politicians over and over again, look what it has given us.
QUIRMBACH: Former math teacher and congressman and now millionaire homebuilder Mark Neumann also has a lot of cash to spend on his Senate campaign. He's focused on 150 ways to cut pork out of the federal budget. Neumann even brought a squealing pig named Mr. Favors to one event.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIG'S OINK)
MARK NEUMANN: If you think he's squealing now, wait till you hear him in Washington, D.C. when they start really cutting wasteful government spending.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIG'S SQUEAL)
QUIRMBACH: The Republican Senate candidate with the lowest amount of campaign dollars is hoping to get elected on the strength of his record helping Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Wisconsin Assembly speaker Jeff Fitzgerald says he joined the effort to curtail collective bargaining and balance the state budget because voters are starved for political courage.
REPRESENTATIVE JEFF FITZGERALD: That's what I bring to the table. I've been battle tested for the past 15 months of fighting for you to do what's right to get this state back on the right track.
QUIRMBACH: Suburban Milwaukee businessman Mark Sauer says the four candidates are close enough that he's still undecided about the senate race.
MARK SAUER: I'm going to flip a coin.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SAUER: You know what? It's going to come down to the end for me, and that's never happened before. So I'm just going to continue to follow these guys very closely.
QUIRMBACH: Also keeping watch on the guys is the likely Democratic nominee in the Wisconsin Senate race, House member Tammy Baldwin. Baldwin says she's not concerned about taking on a well-funded or experienced republican this fall.
REPRESENTATIVE TAMMY BALDWIN: The people of Wisconsin are becoming especially savvy about the fact that the folks who have big money on their side are not necessarily on their side politically.
QUIRMBACH: Polls show Tommy Thompson is leading the GOP Senate primary in Wisconsin. But Thompson still has to win over voters in a Republican Party that's more conservative than it used to be.
For NPR News, I'm Chuck Quirmbach in Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.