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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Let's talk about another leading Republican who's looking for a second act. Tommy Thompson is a former governor of Wisconsin whose record lead him to a job as health and human services secretary under President George W. Bush.

DAVID GREENE, Host:

Now he's seeking a Senate seat. But the man who was one of the nation's leading conservatives now faces criticism that his record is not conservative enough. Here's Wisconsin Public Radio's Shawn Johnson.

SHAWN JOHNSON: It was just last year that Tommy Thompson was feeling the love from Wisconsin Republicans. The GOP needed a candidate to run against then Democratic U.S. Senator Russ Feingold. Thompson toyed with the idea for months, promising he'd announce his decision at a tax day Tea Party rally in Madison. The crowd chanted: Run, Tommy, run.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Run, Tommy, run. Run, Tommy, run.

JOHNSON: Before Thompson let them down.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

TOMMY THOMPSON: I would love to take this on, but I told my family last night that it's time for new voices and new faces, ladies and gentlemen.

JOHNSON: Republicans moved on. Political unknown Ron Johnson defeated Feingold for Senate. And the GOP won big nearly everywhere else. Flash forward to this year. Wisconsin Democratic Senator Herb Kohl announces he won't seek re-election in 2012 and Thompson shows interest. This time he's not met with those cheers though.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Tommy Thompson - not what we need in the U.S. Senate. Club for Growth Action is responsible for the content of this advertising.

JOHNSON: The conservative group began running anti-Thompson TV ads preemptively this summer, questioning Thompson's conservative chops, even though Thompson won four elections as governor, three of them by landslide. Club spokesman Barney Keller says that was then, this is now.

BARNEY KELLER: Well, if all you care about is having just a Republican - any Republican - in the Senate, then you should vote for Tommy Thompson. We believe it's better to have a conservative Republican.

JOHNSON: Keller points to spending increases Thompson oversaw as governor and a letter Thompson co-signed with prominent Democrats calling for a compromise during the federal health care debate. But Tommy Thompson is pushing back, lining up endorsements from old guard Republicans and hiring prominent Republican consultants. In an interview on Milwaukee talk radio yesterday, Thompson was asked how he responds to contentions he's no longer in sync with conservatives.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW)

THOMPSON: Very simply, I was the original conservative.

JOHNSON: Thompson points to the welfare reform he pioneered in Wisconsin and to the spending increases he vetoed as governor. Thompson could face Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, the only announced Democratic candidate so far. But first he'll face a Republican primary challenge - the only question is how big. What appears to be at issue here is old-school conservatism versus modern conservatism, which often appears to view government itself as the problem.

For NPR News, I'm Shawn Johnson in Madison.

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