On the Yacht with Tommy Thompson and Scott Walker
As the Wisconsin delegation got fired up for Paul Ryan's big convention speech tonight, Tommy Thompson held a fundraiser on the StarShip yacht moored at a dock near the Tampa convention center.
Haley Barbour was one of the first aboard, followed by Governor Scott Walker, dressed down in khakis and a Green Bay Packers shirt, and a bevy of other Republican stars with ties to Wisconsin.
The setting, featuring an elephant topiary, clinking wine glasses, and good cheer all around, was perfect for the task in hand: raising lots of money.
John Cornyn of Texas quoted his predecessor as chair of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, telling the laughing attendees, "There is plenty of money for this election. The problem is, some of it is still in your pockets."
Millionaire businessman Ron Johnson got a huge cheer for defeating campaign-finance-reform advocate and poorest man in the U.S. Senate Russ Feingold.
Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, though he wasn't there, was the man of the hour.
Tommy gave a shout-out to Ryan's mother, Betty, who came aboard for the event. Speaking about Ryan, Tommy startled a few people when he suddenly shouted at the top of his lungs: "We're gonna do what's right and we don't care what happens!" That line got the biggest applause of the day, and caused a rather tepid Ron Johnson to make a crack about Tommy needing more "passion."
A bruising Senate primary behind him, the ebullient Thompson was ready to let bygones be bygones and focus on what he cares about the most: hometown pride.
As Senator Cornyn pointed out, "Wisconsin has become the epicenter of Republican politics today."
No one could be happier about that than lifelong Wisconsin booster Tommy Thompson.
"When you say Wisconsin, you pretty much said it all," Thompson declared. "It's hard to be humble when you're from Wisconsin," he added.
Then he introduced Scott Walker, the governor whose confrontational style is a distinct contrast with Thompson, a deal-maker, backslapper, and friend to every Badger as the longest serving governor in Wisconsin history.
Ryan, Walker, Party Chairman Reince Priebus, and the Tea Party Republicans are a different breed. The Club For Growth and Tommy's primary opponent, Jeff Fitzgerald, state assembly leader who has been a major ally of Scott Walker, tried to take down Tommy with nasty adds and by calling him a Republican In Name Only. They might have given Tommy a hard time. But they have one big positive in Tommy's book: They are from Wisconsin.
Fitzgerald was happily chatting at the yacht bar.
The seventy-year-old Thompson is one of the last of his breed as a Republican with moderate, bipartisan tendencies. But the young guns have learned their lesson and are uniting behind Tommy's Senate bid--with good reason. Tommy has tremendous statewide name recognition and is very popular in Wisconsin. More than Ryan, whose ardent fan base at the convention should not be mistaken for support across his state, Tommy could help deliver Wisconsin to the Republicans.
He made the obligatory nod to Mitt Romney:
"If you left Ann Romney's speech last night and you're not convinced, you're not an American," he declared.
But he reserved his warmest regards for Wisconsin.
When he spotted my colleague John Nichols of the Nation and the Capital Times in the crowd, Thompson shouted, "How the hell did you get in here?!" The crowd loved it. "Let's see the liberals at the Capital Times endorse me!" Tommy added. A middle-aged man in a blazer standing next to me laughed so hard he doubled over and elbowed me, "That's the first spontaneous thing I've seen in this whole convention!" he said appreciatively.
Looking around the room at his friends and supporters, Tommy acknowledged members of the Ho Chunk Nation on the yacht. That reminded him of Nichols again.
"I've got the minorities on my side!" he said, "All I need now is the Cap Times!"
It was thanks to Tommy's good old Wisconsin pride that Nichols and I got on board in the first place. All we needed to show was a Wisconsin I.D., the nice lady handing out tickets told us.
Those good feelings only extend so far, of course.
Scott Walker pointed out that Tammy Baldwin, Tommy's opponent, is "one of the most liberal members of the Congress."
The choice in the Senate race is "between a radical Madison liberal or a true reformer," Walker said.
A guy standing behind me whispered, "We're gonna kick her ass. Just like Karl Rove said."
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter
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