Dennis Cook  /  AP file
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., left, with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., during a 2002 Capitol Hill rally supporting their campaign finance bill.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 3/30/2005 4:24:06 PM ET 2005-03-30T21:24:06

Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, a blunt Midwestern maverick who isn't afraid to defy his party, is perfectly placed to make the kind of impression that gets a run for the presidential nomination off to a quick start.

Feingold, a potential 2008 Democratic hopeful, has what his more famous colleague from New York, Sen. Hillary Clinton, lacks: a starring role on a Senate committee that will repeatedly make big news over the next six months.

The big opportunity: a Supreme Court vacancy. Picture a weeks-long nomination battle in the Senate Judiciary Committee, on which Feingold serves, broadcast live on cable news channels. It would be a priceless platform for Feingold to offer Americans a contrast of his views on the Constitution with the nominee’s.

Even before then he'll be in the spotlight. Next week the Judiciary Committee will begin hearings on extension of expiring provisions in the USA Patriot Act. Feingold was the only senator to vote against it in 2001.

He’ll be in the thick of the battle over whether Democrats can continue to use the filibuster to block votes on President Bush’s judicial nominees. Feingold supports the filibuster, saying that he is fighting against “the idea that one party should have a stranglehold on every lever of power.”

Sharp questioner
Unlike another potential 2008 contender, fellow Judiciary Committee Democrat Sen. Joe Biden, whose questioning of witnesses tends to become a meandering meditation on life and the law, Feingold poses crisp queries.

Feingold also co-sponsored the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill, which appeals to reformist and anti-corporate constituencies in the Democratic Party. Last month, he introduced legislation cracking down on the "527" fund-raising groups such as the George Soros-backed America Coming Together which played a dominant role in the 2004 campaign.

If the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs to lower-wage venues such as China becomes a hot issue in the Democratic primaries in 2008, Feingold, among the major contenders, has the most uncompromising record of opposing trade accords. 

In contrast to John Edwards and John Kerry, Feingold voted against the bill to grant permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status to China in 2000.

In a rebuff to President Clinton, he also voted against the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement.

In 1999, again directly challenging Clinton, Feingold voted “no” on the war against Yugoslavia. He and Sen. Fritz Hollings of South Carolina were the only Democrats to vote against the war.

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Critique of Clinton
Clinton “has again failed to make the case to the American people and to the Congress for the deployment of U.S. ground troops in the Balkans,” Feingold charged in a March 22, 1999 speech.

“As with the Bosnia mission, there is no clear set of goals beyond ‘maintaining’ a currently nonexistent peace, no timetable for withdrawal, no cost estimate, and no exit strategy,” Feingold declared. “This proposed deployment to Kosovo is another in the long line of ill-fated and seemingly unending peacekeeping missions that this administration has chosen to undertake without the explicit authorization of the Congress.”

In January Feingold formed a political action committee, the Progressive Patriots Fund, which will help finance his travel across the nation and support Feingold-minded congressional candidates.

The senator returned to Alabama this week to bolster Democrats in a solid Bush state. After going there in November he caused a stir when he wrote an essay for Salon.com in which he depicted Greenville, Ala. as a place of “check-cashing stores and abject trailer parks.”

Exploited in Alabama?
He portrayed Alabama voters as exploited by the Republican Party which “asks them to be concerned about homosexuality but not about the security of their own health, about abortion but not about the economic futures of their own children.”

One advantage Feingold enjoys is his proximity, as a Wisconsin neighbor, to Iowa, where, if Democratic Party rules remain as they were last year, the party will stage its first presidential contest with caucuses in January of 2008.

“Among activists, he is indeed viewed as a progressive, especially regarding campaign finance, but also on the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act,” said Iowa Democratic Party activist David Loebsack. “He is seen as someone who has the courage to stand up for principles.”

But Loebsack added, “I think that while he is on the radar screen for '08, he will have to spend some significant time here to consolidate and build upon that reputation.  I do believe there is the potential for him to capture a significant share of the Dean supporters.” 

“I very much want him to run for president,” said Dr. Gary Weiss, a Florida neurologist and a distant relative of Feingold, who has given $5,000 to the Progressive Patriots Fund.

Weiss called Feingold “the most ethical, honest guy in Washington.” Referring to Feingold’s vote against the Patriot Act, Weiss said, “even if it seems politically unwise at the time, he votes to uphold the Constitution.”

If he ran and won the nomination, Feingold would give the Democrats a Midwesterner at the top of the 2008 ticket, which could make a difference in a region where the party’s candidates have struggled in the last two elections.

Democrats' Midwestern woes
In 2004, Kerry lost Iowa, the first Democratic presidential candidate to lose that state in 20 years. Kerry barely won Wisconsin and had only a 3.5 percentage point margin in Minnesota.

While Kerry eked out a three-tenths of one percent win in Wisconsin, Feingold scored a solid triumph, amassing a 330,000 vote margin over his Republican adversary, Tim Michels.

Michels made the Patriot Act a centerpiece of his campaign against Feingold, saying “all of the other senators got it right ... we haven't had a terrorist attack in this country in over three years.'' He accused Feingold of being “AWOL in this war on terrorism.”

He also assailed Feingold for voting against military spending bills, calling those votes “an insult” to U.S. troops.

Feingold seemed to thrive on such attacks: his margin of victory last November was nine points bigger than in his 1998 election.

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