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Novice Johnson Must Establish Himself in Feingold Territory

Two versions of Republican Senate candidate Ron Johnson are being introduced to Wisconsin voters. One is a successful businessman who embodies the hard-working spirit of the upper Midwest. The other is an extremist and elitist, a right-winger who doesn’t know the issues.

Whether Johnson or Sen. Russ Feingold (D) wins in November may well depend on which version voters get to know best.

Johnson became the favorite to win Wisconsin’s Sept. 14 Republican primary after former Gov. Tommy Thompson and former brewing company executive Dick Leinenkugel dropped out of the race in the spring. The political novice quickly pulled even in the polls with Feingold, who was first elected in 1992. Johnson had raised $558,000 and loaned his campaign $1.5 million by the end of June, while Feingold had raised $6 million.

A Rasmussen poll of 750 likely Wisconsin voters taken Tuesday found the two candidates statistically tied, with 47 percent favoring Johnson and 46 percent favoring Feingold. The poll had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

As his profile has risen, Johnson’s past and his policy positions have received more criticism. Perhaps the most damning was the revelation last week that his plastics manufacturing business, Pacur, had taken government loans at a low interest rate. Democrats trumpeted the news, painting Johnson as a hypocrite who otherwise opposes federal assistance programs.

Johnson insists the issue is more nuanced than Feingold and Democrats make it out to be. A grant of $75,000 was awarded to Pacur’s predecessor before Johnson came on board, but two low-interest government loans of $1.5 million and $2.5 million came during his tenure in the 1980s. In a phone interview Friday, he said the loans were offered as an incentive to bring business to Oshkosh. “I never lobbied for it,” he said. “I just took advantage of what the city officials were offering to build a plant there and expand there.”

Democrats argue that the government loans invalidate the Wisconsin Republican Party’s portrayal of Johnson as a self-made businessman.

“The whole foundation of his campaign is, I’m a businessman. I’m a self-made man who pulled myself up by my bootstraps, and I’m the good guy and government’s the bad guy,” said John Kraus, a senior adviser to Feingold. “Now when you have revelations that he’s actually benefited from government loans and grants, it completely undermines the credibility of his entire campaign. That’s probably his biggest weakness going forward.”

Johnson responded that he has never characterized himself as a self-made man. He started Pacur with his brother-in-law in 1979 as a successor to a company run by Johnson’s in-laws. The two sold it in 1986, but Johnson continued to manage the company and bought it back in 1997. He said he has been involved with every aspect of the plastic packaging and medical device packaging business, including running the machines, sales, accounting, buying health care plans and initiating 401(k) retirement accounts.

“I make no apologies for the fact that I built the business,” he said. “Did I do it by myself? I’ve been blessed with really good people who worked with me all the way through.”

Johnson also said Democrats have misled voters about his stances on some issues. He said he does not want to abolish the IRS or Federal Reserve, and he would only support private accounts for Social Security as an option for younger workers, not a full-scale privatization of the retirement accounts. He said he has never encouraged teaching creationism in schools, but he defended his much-ridiculed claim that sunspots could be part of the cause for global warming.

“The issue there is it’s unsettled science,” he said.

In an election year that has found incumbents on their heels, one of Johnson’s strengths may be his lack of political experience. Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said voters are looking for “a real, authentic person who is not a plasticized Washington politician.”

“I just think the Washington way is so hated right now that when you position somebody as being completely an outsider who is smart and successful and articulate, I think you have a huge advantage immediately,” Priebus said.

But it’s tough to tie Feingold to Washington special interests, even though he has logged more than 15 years on Capitol Hill. He is known for his work to overhaul campaign finance law with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and for discouraging campaign help from outside interests.

“He’s someone who has taken on Washington corporate special interests, and he’s someone who’s stayed connected to the state,” Kraus said of Feingold, who visits all 72 counties every year. “He’s not a Washington insider.”

Johnson’s other strength is his ability to generously contribute to his own cause. He has already loaned $1.5 million to his campaign, and he places no limit on the amount of money he will spend to retire Feingold. Much of the money has gone toward introducing Johnson to voters; a recent TV ad portrays Johnson with his wife and three children as “just a Wisconsin family worried about our country.”

National parties on both sides have targeted the race. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee contributed the maximum amount it can give directly to a candidate to Feingold in the spring, and he got a lot of financial support from fellow Democratic Senators. Johnson has been helped by the political action committees of a number of Republican Senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), John Cornyn (Texas) and Jon Kyl (Ariz.).

Outside groups might also invest heavily: Johnson has the endorsements of the pro-business Club for Growth and former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks political action committee. Johnson’s mantra could be theirs.

“We need a different perspective in Washington,” he said. “We need somebody that actually respects business, respects the private sector.”

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