Josh has accidentally hit upon the extraordinary range of feelings that Wisconsinites have about Tommy Thompson: He is viewed as being anything from a brilliant technocrat to a foot-in-mouth buffoon.
I lived in Wisconsin for six years, having arrived there in the Fall of 2000 and leaving in the Summer of 2006. Tommy went off to Washington in January 2001, so I never actually lived under his 14-year reign. But I did get to know a lot of prominent Democrats who did live and labor through it including a really smart woman, since deceased, who served as an appointee of his and really seemed to like him as a person, whatever their political differences were.
The consensus I found seemed to be that he did in fact have a sharp mind for policy, a genuine love of state government and all its inner workings, and really outstanding leadership qualities. Though on the dark side, he definitely had a certain autocratic notion of his powers as governor versus those of the legislature, not all that far from what we've seen in Bush.
At the same time, the people who saw him as a blockhead were not inaccurate, either. On a personal level, the man has never ceased to embody all the qualities of rural Wisconsin that most people would describe, in some of the more polite terms, as being those of a boorish country bumpkin.
Republicans had wanted him to run for Senate in 1998 and 2004 against Russ Feingold. If he'd run in 1998, I can say without hesitation that he would have won easily, 55%-45% at the very least. If he'd run in 2004 it would have been a tough call, but I'd lean towards a Thompson victory. The key here is that he never actually took the bait. Washington was never the right environment for him, and everybody knew it.
And when Tommy did go to Washington, everything I heard was that he hated it. Granted, my sources were Democrats rather than Republicans, but even then I'd say they were more than trustworthy. At a certain point he openly said he would serve through the end of Bush's first term, and then leave. So when I first heard that he was running for president, I had no idea why. I'd figured he was done with Washington, and never going back.
So the bottom line, I suppose, is that Tommy Thompson is both an innovator in the world of conservative social policy and a real boob. I guess that was a huge part of his charm at the state level, giving the people a guy who was simultaneously an egghead for policy and a regular average slob. But at this point he's really embarrassing himself, and should just get off the stage. The results at Ames this weekend will probably fix that.