By James Rowen, for   Published Sep 21, 2004 at 5:14 AM

{image1}The three highest-profile primary election contests were similar in one striking respect: the unambiguous messages sent by voters.

And now these races will keep the spotlight on Wisconsin through the general election in November.

State Sen. Gwendolynne Moore clobbered her two male opponents in the 4th Congressional District Democratic primary, winning nearly two-thirds of the vote. Assuming Moore wins the November general election, she will make history and become the state's first African-American member of Congress.

In the U.S. Senate Republican primary, construction executive Tim Michels easily out-polled his two, better known opponents -- car dealer Russ Darrow and veteran state Sen. Bob Welch, R-Redgranite.

And in the red-hot Republican 20th District State Senate primary, Rep. Glenn Grothman demolished sitting Republican Senate Majority Leader Mary Panzer by an astonishing 4-to-1 margin.

In all three races, voters left little doubt whom it was they want on the November ballot. They selected:

  • Moore, a community leader with a compelling personal story, who overcame a Democratic establishment that preferred to see incumbency transferred seamlessly from outgoing U.S. Rep. Jerry Kleczka to Attorney Matt Flynn, a longtime party stalwart:

  • Michels, a fresh face who stood above the Welch-Darrow mudslinging -- much as Russ Feingold did successfully when then-favorites Joe Checota and Jim Moody bashed each other into submission in the 1992 Democratic Senate primary. Michels also benefited from a military background that resonated with many Republican primary voters.

  • Grothman, a self-proclaimed true conservative on abortion, taxation and the role of government. While Grothman's margin was the most jaw-dropping of the three high-profile victories, it is too early to read more into it than a grassroots drubbing.

We may look back at the race and agree that it was the clearest sign yet that the Wisconsin Republican party has morphed into the far-right party. AM-talk radio will be on the air with this line throughout the election.

But the conventional wisdom may turn out to be that Panzer fatally mishandled this summer's embarrassingly failed special session on tax reform legislation -- and that taken with her other well-documented political flubs of the last couple of years, her blowout loss was more the result of self-sabotage than it was the anointing of Grothman as the face of the new Party Of The Right.

In addition, the outcomes in all three races will boost the attention Wisconsin will receive in the November election and beyond.

Moore's strong showing will give the Kerry campaign hope that Milwaukee's central city is politically energized, with the Democratic ticket statewide as the beneficiary. If she becomes a member of Congress, Moore stands to become a leading national voice for minorities and women, and impoverished constituencies.

And EMILY's List, which backed Moore, can claim a significant win.

Michels' campaign will argue its candidate's impressive victory shows that if President Bush has coattails, Wisconsin is the spot to try and put them to use.

Feingold always campaigns as if he were the underdog, and he probably would have had an easier time against the personable but inept Darrow, or the marginalized Welch, so look to both Feingold and Michels running flat-out -- each with the support of their national tickets and party treasuries.

Retaining the seat would keep Democrats' hope of winning Senate control alive: losing it would be a huge setback, so, again -- the stakes in this race are very high, and Michels' primary win raises them.

Grothman's win will be trumpeted on the right as proof that the state of Wisconsin -- despite a progressive tradition of public service innovation -- now wants abortion rights rolled back to zero and the size of government cut sharply, too.

All three candidates' primary victories sharpen the edge of partisan politics in Wisconsin as the national election approaches.

James-Rowen is a Milwaukee writer and consultant who used to work for John Norquist.

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