MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republican Tommy Thompson and Democrat Tammy Baldwin sparred over their reactions to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and their approach to Iran in their final debate Friday in the race to fill Wisconsin's open U.S. Senate seat.
Seated next to each other at a round table at the Marquette University Law School, Thompson and Baldwin — who polls show are in a dead heat to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl — forcefully disagreed with one another during the hour-long debate, especially over their recent campaign ads dealing with Sept. 11.
Thompson first raised the issue with an ad that began airing Tuesday blasting Baldwin's 2006 vote against a resolution honoring the victims. Baldwin voted nine other times for resolutions honoring the victims and worked on passing a bill providing money for health care for first responders.
"I am outraged that Tommy Thompson would question my patriotism," Baldwin said.
Thompson, who described being at ground zero in the days after the attacks in his role as U.S. health secretary under President George W. Bush, said he wasn't questioning Baldwin's patriotism.
"I questioned her judgment," he said.
Baldwin was one of 22 members of the U.S. House who voted against the 2006 resolution. She said at the time and during the campaign that she voted against it because it also included endorsements of Republican policies she opposed, including the Patriot Act.
Baldwin ran an ad this week in response saying Thompson personally profited from the attacks by making $3 million from a health care firm he led that scored a government contract to treat first responders.
"He has personally profited from 9/11 and now he is trying to politically profit from 9/11," she said during the debate.
Earlier on Friday, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani said it would be an embarrassment if Baldwin won, and praised Thompson's work as health secretary in the wake of the attacks.
"For Tammy Baldwin to attack him on anything related to Sept. 11 is so hypocritical, she should be ashamed of herself," Giuliani said.
In a conference call organized by the Baldwin campaign, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York said Thompson's ad was a shameful misappropriation of a "sacred" memory in the nation's history. He said Thompson's decision to run the ad was a poor reflection on his character, and he called on Thompson to pull the spot.
Relatives of victims of the attacks and first responders also sent letters to Thompson on Friday asking him to remove his ad.
"I lost my husband that day and I continue to feel, as do many other family members, that using 9/11 to mislead voters for partisan gain is wrong," Nikki Stern said in a letter released by the Baldwin campaign.
The Thompson ad played into his campaign theme trying to portray Baldwin as a liberal too extreme for Wisconsin. The debate moderator, veteran journalist Mike Gousha, asked Baldwin why she doesn't embrace the label, given that she's been voted one of the most liberal members of Congress.
Baldwin refused, and instead described herself as a "proud progressive."
Gousha then asked Thompson about comments he made during the hotly contested four-way GOP primary indicating that he was more conservative than people thought. Thompson backed away from those comments Friday.
"I've always been a moderate conservative," he said, adding that during his 14 years as governor he frequently worked closely with Democrats as well as Republicans.
On Iran, Thompson criticized Baldwin for voting four times between 2006 and 2011 against efforts to toughen sanctions. However, since Baldwin entered the Senate race, she has voted twice in favor of expanding sanctions.
He also criticized her for being one of 11 House members in 2007 to vote "present" on a resolution condemning Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for questioning the Holocaust and advocating the destruction of the state of Israel. The resolution, which also called on the United Nations' Security Council to charge Ahmadinejad with inciting genocide, passed 411-2.
Baldwin questioned Thompson's holding stock worth about $38,000 in seven companies that do business with Iran. Thompson has said he's sold it.
"He should not be lecturing me on Iran policy," Baldwin said.
The "Tommy vs. Tammy" race in Wisconsin is the most expensive Senate contest in the state's history with spending from the candidates and outside groups topping $48 million. Baldwin, 50, has represented the Madison area in Congress since 1999. Thompson, 70, was first elected to the state Legislature in 1966 and served as governor from 1987 until 2001.
The Senate seat has been in Democratic hands since 1957, but due to the Kohl's retirement, it's viewed as a pick-up opportunity for Republicans as they try to win majority control in the Senate.