MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Who wins the "Tammy vs. Tommy" U.S. Senate race may come down to who is better at convincing voters that their opponent isn't who they appear to be.
Both sides and their allies broke spending records driving home their messages trying to paint Democrat Tammy Baldwin as a radical extremist and Republican Tommy Thompson as someone who's not for Wisconsin anymore.
The infusion of nearly $50 million on mostly negative television advertising dominated the tone and tenor of the race. The ads got so nasty, and so far from the core issues at stake in the election, that candidates ended up arguing in the waning days of the race over who cares more about victims and first responders to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Arguing over that topic — which consumed much of last week and ensnared former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Gov. George Pataki, relatives of survivors and first responders — also took center stage at their final debate Friday.
The money spent, and the attention given to the open Senate seat, speaks to its importance nationally. With Republicans needing four seats to take over the majority, or three if Mitt Romney is elected president, winning in Wisconsin could make the difference.
Now with the race in its final days, who actually wins will be dependent on several factors. Among them are who can turn out their voters better, who independent voters ultimately side with, if Romney or President Barack Obama will provide enough of a bump to affect the Senate race, and whether voters will ultimately accept the narratives pushed by the campaigns and the ads.
Polls show both the presidential and Senate race in Wisconsin to be dead heats.
Polls also show that both sides have been effective at their messaging as driven home by the barrage of TV ads. A Marquette University Law School poll released Oct. 17 showed that 48 percent of responders believe Baldwin is too liberal, and 48 percent also believe that Thompson doesn't care about Wisconsin.
"The negative advertising has worked, but it stuck to both candidates to equal degree," said Marquette pollster Charles Franklin.
The Senate race has been taken over by the television spending, said Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster who's worked on Senate races since Herb Kohl's first run for office in 1988. There's little either candidate can do to break through it, he said.
"When you have that kind of saturation taking place ... almost any event has a transitory impact on the race and then it disappears," he said.
In the 2010 Senate race, won by Republican Ron Johnson over Democratic incumbent Russ Feingold, about $33 million was spent. In 2004, only $15 million went into the race.
Baldwin's campaign has been disciplined and low-key, with the seven-term congresswoman sticking to her plan and not making any glaring missteps. While her demeanor on the campaign trail may border on boring, she's maintained a steady message while trying to convince voters that she's more in touch with the needs of the state than the 70-year-old Thompson, who hasn't been on the ballot in 14 years.
Thompson has tried to re-ignite the goodwill that made him such a popular governor that he steamrolled to re-election three times. He often hearkens back to those economic boom years when he was governor, while trying to convince voters that Baldwin is too liberal to really speak for Wisconsin.