Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Blind Leading The Bland

Even his closest political allies concede Jim Doyle lacks pizazz. What's more, some have taken to calling the charismatically-challenged governor "Velcro Jim" because bad news seems to stick to him as easily as it slid off "Teflon Tommy" Thompson. And while Tommy was a darling to his right-wing base, Doyle has done little to inspire and much to alienate his.

One thing Doyle has in common with his hated rival is uncommon skill at raising money. The governor and his handlers obviously are betting that he can buy his way out from under any ethical cloud and at the same time overcome his drabness with a blizzard of feel-good TV ads about him and feel-scared ads about his opponents.

Tommy Thompson still reigns as Wisconsin's undisputed king of campaign fundraising, having raised more money than any other candidate in state history over his more than three decades in public office and four terms as governor. But Doyle is catching up fast, raising money at a considerably faster clip than Tommy ever did . . . even in his last and most expensive campaign.

So far, Doyle has raised more than $5.9 million for his re-election bid, compared to the $3.2 million Thompson raised at the same point in his last campaign. At every stage, Doyle has outpaced Thompson. In the first six months after taking office, Doyle raised $562,954 compared to the $151,090 Thompson raised in the first half of 1995. Thompson stepped up his fundraising in the second half of that year, raising $441,681. But Doyle took in $944,904 in the comparable period. Doyle then raised $907,870 in the first half of 2004 and another $878,042 in the second half, compared to $383,307 and $536,712, respectively, for Thompson in the two 1996 reporting periods.

As he headed into 2005, Doyle really kicked his fundraising machine into high gear, accepting $1,442,315 in the first half of the year and $1,164,865 in the last six months covered in the report he filed yesterday. Thompson's comparable fundraising figures in 1997 were $868,460 in the first half of the year and $851,854 in the second half.

On top of direct donations to his re-election campaign, big donors are ponying up "soft money" to groups that will run their own ads benefiting Doyle. The flood of soft money is coming from an array of corporate interests and especially Indian tribes.

A total of nearly $23 million was spent on the 2002 governor's race by candidates and special interest groups, almost triple the $8 million spent on the 1998 race. With Doyle's record-breaking fundraising and with just one Indian tribe reportedly budgeting a staggering $7.2 million for political spending in 2006, the pricetag on the governor's office will surely far exceed 2002's.

In a conventional political year, Jim Doyle would hold a commanding advantage over his Republican rivals, neither of whom has half as much cash on hand as the governor and neither of whom is able to lay claim as Doyle can to the support of Wisconsin's dominant new political force – the tribes and other casino gaming interests.

But 2006 is shaping up to be anything but a conventional political year, what with mushrooming corruption scandals and a growing majority of voters feeling the state and nation are headed in the wrong direction. Doyle's formulaic, paint-by-numbers handlers appear blind to this year's potential unconventionality. They seem almost blissfully unaware that they may yet find themselves holding a strong hand, only to discover the game they're playing isn't cards.

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