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Russ Never Sleeps

All it takes is a Web log and a “draft” movement, and just about anybody can become presidential timber these days.

Even so, many political observers think that a current darling of the Internet, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), could have a legitimate shot at the White House in 2008 — if he’s interested.

Peruse a half-dozen or so Internet sites dedicated to the junior Senator from the Badger State and one might believe he invented sliced bread. Nonetheless, Feingold just may have the right record, geography and chutzpah to be a serious contender.

“He has potential with blue-collar workers that Democrats have trouble with,” said pollster Fred Yang of Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group, who has polled for all three of Feingold’s Senate campaigns. “People believe he is incredibly honest and that despite being in Washington for 12-plus years, that he’s not part of the Washington gang. People respect him and would vote for him even though they don’t agree with him on [all] the issues.”

Feingold’s decisive 11-point win last year over Gulf War veteran Tim Michels (R) in a state that presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) won by only 1 percent has not gone unnoticed.

“If I were a betting man, I’d consider putting some dough on a 16-1 shot,” social critic and author Sanford Horwitt wrote of Feingold in The Chicago Tribune recently.

Michels tried to use issues against Feingold that are the very ones his supporters now highlight when talking about his viability.

“There are things he’s done that people really admire,” said Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairwoman Linda Honold. “He has been out in the forefront on campaign finance reform … he has shown an ability to work across the aisle by working with Sen. [John] McCain (R-Ariz.)” on the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.

“When the PATRIOT Act came up he was the only Senator to say ‘we’re rushing this through’ … and voted against it,” which people admire, she said.

Taking His Act on the Road

Since winning in November, Feingold, a former Rhodes scholar, has formed a leadership political action committee and traveled to one of the least Democratic states in the union, Alabama.

“We need to go to all 50 states as party leaders,” Feingold said in an interview last week, insisting that his trip was not about testing the 2008 waters but about helping Democrats regain the majority in Congress. “We need to listen to people in all parts of the country and we need to find out what their priorities are. After that, we have to show we’re a party that will seek solutions.”

By going for the best solutions that may deviate from “pre-set ideology” and offend special interests, Democrats will show their practicality and “that’s what we have to be to win,” Feingold said.

In a recent C-SPAN appearance, Feingold was more blunt about his motives, saying: “What I am doing is going to some places around the country … because I’m tired of our losing, to put it in a way a Green Bay Packer fan would put it.”

Yang said it is that kind of talk and action that endears Feingold to a wide range of voters.

Because of his anti-free-trade stances, “he has strong blue-collar appeal,” Yang said. “He’s at home with the brie and wine set in Madison, but also with the shot-and-beer crowd in Green Bay — and seniors like him.”

A Denial and a Non-Denial

The 52-year-old Senator denies stoking the presidential rumors. Rather, he said, activists came to him. But he never quite dismisses a White House run either.

“It was pretty clear that there was a great deal of disappointment among Democrats after the [2004] election,” Feingold said. “We just noticed there was a whole lot of blog activity; people seemed to be looking around for people who could move things forward for the party. We got a great number of correspondence … then it grew on its own. I don’t know how big of a deal it is; it is born out of frustration and [a] ‘where do we go from here?’” feeling, he said.

A visit to some Internet sites bears that out.

“The movement began in late 2004 in response to elections which had left the Democratic Party with too many questions that demanded answers,” the site’s founders explain. “We set out with the idea that Democrats — and America — needed someone who would not compromise his or her well-placed values, who would stand up to threats to our country and who would lead our nation to a new era of justice and prosperity. U.S. Senator Russ Feingold was the obvious choice.”

Feingold denies that interest in him comes mainly from frustrated liberals searching for a new leader in the wake of the implosion of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s presidential candidacy and the 2002 death of then-Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.).

“That is way too narrow of a characterization,” Feingold said.

Much of his correspondence from supporters focuses on fiscal discipline, his lone dissenting PATRIOT Act vote and other issues, he said.

“There’s more about campaign finance reform and voting to protect civil liberties than socially progressive issues … but many did say they were Dean supporters.”

Honold declined to label Feingold a progressive, though his PAC is called the Progressive Patriots Fund.

“I think he fits the Wisconsin tradition of mavericks,” she said. “If you go back to Fighting Bob LaFollette [the early 20th century Wisconsin governor and Senator] and [former Democratic Sen.] Bill Proxmire, he fits in that mold.”

Another maverick whose name is in the 2008 presidential mix is Feingold’s good friend McCain.

“John and I are always kidding around about this kind of stuff,” Feingold said. “I think he would make a great president.”

And if they both ended up running?

“It doesn’t worry me in the least; it won’t ever affect our relationship, is my guess,” he said.

McCain also dismissed the hypothetical, advising his colleague to “make sure that people don’t think his first name is McCain.”

Feingold is attractive to reform-minded voters, Yang said.

“His appeal is more than ideological, his appeal is the reform element — that he gives money [for his Senate operations] back every year, that he makes them vote on pay raises every year,” Yang said.

Spotlight on Reform

Government watchdog groups would likely welcome a Feingold candidacy.

“We’re a nonpartisan group, however, it’s always good that when we get to the campaigns that the discussion can reflect reform issues,” said Celia Wexler, Common Cause’s advocacy vice president. “We would hope given Sen. Feingold’s background and commitment to following the role of money in politics … that these topics will come up, and that’s a good thing.”

Feingold’s campaign finance stance — in 1998 he almost lost his seat because he barred outside groups from spending money on his behalf — begs the question of whether he could raise the huge sums of money necessary for a presidential run.

“Can he bring in the big bucks?” asked Martin Farrell, a political science professor at Ripon College in Wisconsin. “The PAC is a vehicle to try and do that.”

Feingold has already taken guff from some reformers for launching his PAC but Farrell believes Feingold can and will do whatever is allowed under BCRA to raise funds.

Yang says Feingold’s dedication to cleaning up the presidential campaign financing system should not prohibit him from being a contender.

“What is underestimated about him is he is extremely principled but he wants to win,” Yang said.

Feingold can look to Dean’s ability to raise massive amounts of “clean” money from the Internet for guidance, he said.

“Given his constituency, given his stands on issues, of anyone out there right now, he could raise significant dough from the Internet,” Yang said.

Whatever his attributes, no one thinks Feingold is a frontrunner.

“Clearly he is not in the top tier, which is occupied by one person right now,” Yang said, referring to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

And this week Feingold got his first real test of presidential viability.

He and his second wife of 14 years announced they were “amicably” separating.

Some have already written him off and the Web logs dedicated to him have been discussing the ramifications since the news broke Monday.

Asked whether the divorce would end Feingold’s nascent campaign, Farrell replied, “If there are not complications some months from now, probably not.”

The Senator’s marital status is a looming question mark, however, if he decides to run for president.

“Will the American public elect a single man?” Farrell asked. “I don’t know, one hasn’t even been nominated” since James Buchanan.

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