Thompson Looks to Build Bridges From Madison

GOVERNOR TESTS PRESIDENTIAL WATERS

WISCONSIN Gov. Tommy Thompson, whose cutting-edge welfare reforms have helped make him one of America's most visible governors, is eyeing a bid to extend his home-state appeal nationwide in a possible 1996 presidential sally.

Mr. Thompson took to the stump in New Hampshire today for the third time in recent weeks. He plans a trip to Iowa on June 15. In a further attempt to test the governor's appeal among voters, supporters say they plan to form a presidential exploratory committee by mid-June.

Indeed, the GOP governor is already talking like a contender: "I am the only candidate truly on the outside who has no Washington connections," Thompson told the Monitor in an interview. He said he will decide "around Labor Day" whether to run.

Still, both Thompson and his backers acknowledge that he would face major hurdles in winning the Republican nomination.

"It's a big leap from setting up an exploratory committee to joining the race," says Milwaukee attorney John MacIver, a close friend of the governor and likely chair of the committee.

Topping the list of obstacles is money. Thompson would have to raise "a minimum" of $8 million to compete in the presidential primaries, a sum equal to the cost of his most expensive gubernatorial campaign, MacIver says.

EVEN then, he would trail other contenders in forming an organization to compete on a multistate basis during this election's telescoped primaries. "It would be difficult to pull off," says John Bibby, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin.

Furthermore, although Thompson is popular in Wisconsin, he is not well known among the US electorate. A recent poll in Wisconsin gave him an 81 percent approval rating, higher than that of any other current governor. Nevertheless, the vast majority of Americans do not recognize his name.

"He hasn't developed the name ID on the national scene. This is relatively new to him; the other candidates have been working toward this all their lives," says David Opitz, chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party.

Nevertheless, GOP strategists say Thompson's strengths as an activist governor and policy innovator - who has led the pack on education and welfare reform, states' rights, and other major issues - should not be underestimated. At the least, it may put him in the running for the No. 2 on the ticket or another post, should he want one.

"He is on the leading edge of Republican politics, and he has a message that Republicans could very well need to sell in 1996," says GOP pollster Gene Ulm.

Since Thompson was elected governor in 1986, Wisconsin's welfare rolls have shrunk by 25 percent. In January, the state initiated a controversial "two-years-you're-out" welfare experiment. Meanwhile, employment is at an all time high in Wisconsin, which has enjoyed strong growth in manufacturing jobs.

Thompson, who will become chairman of the National Governors' Association in late July, has also been a leading advocate of the now widely debated Republican effort to devolve federal programs to the states.

"Most of the subjects that Washington is talking about we've already done in the state of Wisconsin," Thompson said. "We are a model."

Thompson's electoral successes should also impress his fellow Republicans. The third-term governor was reelected last November with a 68 percent margin, a record in Wisconsin. "He has showed Republicans the key to winning with large margins in a notorious swing state," says Mr. Ulm.

In deciding whether to enter the presidential race, Thompson will mainly consider "whether any of the other candidates are delivering his message and have the ability to excite Republican voters and defeat Bill Clinton," says spokesman Mark Liedl.

Thompson's immediate strategy is to try to inject his political views into the presidential debate, rather than to compete head-on with front-runner Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas or other leading Republican contenders, aides say.

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