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Southern strategy for Feingold

Sounding like a candidate, he seeks resonance with Alabama voters

By CRAIG GILBERT
cgilbert@journalsentinel.com

Montgomery, Ala. - What is Russ Feingold doing deep in the heart of Bush Country?

Running for president?

"I really don't know, and I'm not going to worry about it," Feingold told the Montgomery Advertiser on Tuesday when the newspaper asked him about 2008.

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Plunging into a national debate over his party's future?

"The Democratic Party hasn't been doing too well. Maybe we ought to listen to people in other states," Feingold said at a "listening session" he held Tuesday in - of all places - George W. Bush's top congressional district in the country, the Alabama 6th. (The president got 78% of the vote there.)

Wisconsin's junior senator spent Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday driving around this politically forbidding "red state," meeting with liberal and conservative Democrats, Bush voters, local dignitaries and a curious Alabama media, enjoying the improbability of it all.

"When was the last time some Democrat from another part of the country went into Greenville, Alabama, and just said, 'What's the deal here?' " Feingold said before his trip.

You could look at Feingold's Alabama adventure as an extended conversation between North and South over the current woes and future direction of the Democratic Party.

Or you could view it as a guy who might run for president taking his style and message out for an early road test.

Feingold's appearances in Alabama followed a fairly consistent pattern.

He introduced himself as a Northern Democrat sick of seeing his party lose.

"We got clobbered," he said of the November elections.

He asked his listeners what they thought the party was doing wrong.

And over the course of his visit, he laid out what sounded like the elements of an embryonic Feingold strategy - for himself or his party - for how to win back lapsed and teetering Democrats.

Put another way, he provided some clues about how a "Russ Feingold for President" campaign, were it ever to happen, might look.

If the theme of the trip was making inroads in red states dominated by culturally conservative voters, Feingold's prescriptions involved both style and substance.

Along with jobs and health care, he repeatedly brought up the deficit and trade, suggesting both issues could be used to win back conservative and blue collar voters upset by the nation's growing debt or the loss of jobs overseas. He argued that the environment could be a winning issue in red states, especially if Democrats linked it to hunting and fishing and conservation, something John Kerry sought with mixed success to do in 2004.

"John Kerry was a laughingstock in his hunting attire," complained one Democratic activist at a meeting with Feingold in Birmingham.

"I don't think the answer was having hunting attire," said Feingold, who doesn't hunt.

Culture, values are key

The notion that the national Democratic Party is culturally out of step with most Southern voters was an unsurprising but constant refrain among Feingold's hosts during the trip. One Democratic activist who met with Feingold summed up the problem as the "heart" issues, or "God, guns and gays."

Culture and values trump economics and issues, many Alabamians told Feingold.

"This is the Bible Belt part of the nation," said Greenville Mayor Dexter McLendon, Feingold's host for a day.

"They're not going to vote for you because they agree with you. They're going to vote for you because you understand them," said University of Alabama at Birmingham professor Larry Powell, who came to hear Feingold speak.

"There's a perception that 'Democrats don't think like us,' " said Powell.

Feingold, a hunting-state senator who voted against renewal of the assault weapons ban, singled out guns as a hot-button cultural issue that Democrats could neutralize by convincing pro-gun voters that Democrats respect their right to bear arms.

"If we can change the perception about guns, I believe that would be the most useful thing we can do, not only in the state of Alabama, but also in Wisconsin," he said in an interview Tuesday.

Feingold suggested that abortion and gay rights represented more fundamental differences, less easily bridged. But he argued that some voters can live with such differences "if we present ourselves as pragmatic, honest and willing to listen."

In fact, much of what Feingold had to say in Alabama about expanding the party's appeal was stylistic, about speaking "straight" and "connecting" with ordinary people, the sort of things Kerry was criticized for failing to do.

"Maybe it's more about character and about how we present ourselves as people," Feingold said at the listening session he held for some 20 Alabamians in a heavily Republican suburban county south of Birmingham.

Throughout the trip, he criticized the tone of Bush's harshest critics, saying that "some of the language I heard Democrats use was very bad. . . . Don't say, 'I hate the president.' Don't say things like, 'We need regime change in the United States.' "

Trying out his ideas

At times, Feingold could be heard tossing out themes and ideas, inviting Democrats he met with to weigh in on their potential appeal for red states.

"I feel they're abusing their power," Feingold told a group of activists in Birmingham, arguing that Republicans in Washington were overreaching in their exercise of federal authority. "Is that something people in Alabama care about? If it doesn't work, it doesn't work."

The response to that line of argument was mixed.

Feingold's visit was prompted by an invitation from the mayor of Greenville, who was upset about a column Feingold wrote about his brief stop in the small city during a golf trip in November. The senator patched things up when he spent the day in Greenville on Monday. But in turning the visit into three days of press and political events, Feingold fueled more talk about his interest in a presidential race. When the senator left Alabama on Wednesday, he went to a fund-raiser for his political committee in Houston.

"I certainly have not decided," he said of his 2008 plans, suggesting it was far too early to know such things for sure.

Feingold dispensed cheese, bratwurst and kringle at virtually every stop. He met with both the Montgomery and Birmingham papers, and he agreed to requests from both that he write a column for them about his visit.

Asked toward the end of the trip what he learned in Alabama, Feingold said, "There's a real concern the (national) Democratic Party doesn't get it when it comes to how to communicate and even sort of identify the right priorities."

He also said that doing better in national elections in the Deep South was not a "pipe dream" for Democrats.

Even some Alabama Democrats voiced some skepticism about that.

But used to being written off, they also welcomed the unusual presence in their midst of a Democrat from the North on a "listening tour."

The chairman of the Alabama Republican Party did not return phone calls requesting comment on Feingold's trip.

Feingold drew well over 100 Birmingham Democrats to hear him speak Tuesday night, an event taped by C-SPAN. They seemed to know him mainly as the co-author of the McCain-Feingold campaign reforms, and secondarily as the only senator who voted against the USA Patriot Act.

Feingold opened by declaring his support for a "50-state strategy" for the party.

"We will concede no state, we will concede no precinct, no more!" he proclaimed.

After he was done, he got a standing ovation. One listener, an attorney named Bill Dawson who said he wanted no more Democratic nominees "from New York or Massachusetts," was asked how Feingold came across to him.

"Not too much of a Yankee," said Dawson, in what may be the ultimate compliment here.







From the March 31, 2005 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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