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The next Bill Proxmire? - US Senate race between Democrat Russ Feingold and Republican Robert W. Kasten in Wisconsin
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MILWAUKEE

IF WISCONSIN's Senate campaign is decided on the basis of personality, Democrat Russ Feingold will be the state's newest senator. If it is decided on the basis of issues, Republican incumbent Bob Kasten still has a shot.

Feingold began October well ahead of Kasten in the polls, largely on the basis of his whimsical ads that propelled him to a stunning September primary upset over two better-known and better-funded candidates. Only weeks before the primary, Feingold's support was still in single digits. On primary day, the underdog pulled a staggering 70 per cent of the vote.

Although Feingold's rise was based on a campaign remarkably devoid of substance, few contests offer such sharp ideological contrasts. Even by the progressive standards of Wisconsin Democrats, Feingold is an unreconstructed Sixties throwback, with an affinity for tax hikes, increased regulation, income redistribution, and eccentricity in foreign policy.

The centerpiece of his campaign is an 82-point economic plan that calls for $323 billion in tax hikes and massive cuts in defense spending. His television ads openly tout his opposition to a balanced-budget amendment, term limits, and a middle-class tax cut. He supports a national health plan in which the Federal Government would pay all medical bills.

His record as a state senator over the last decade is a mosaic of political correctness. He opposed legislation requiring teens to get their parents' consent before getting an abortion; opposed all forms of school choice (even among public schools); opposed state enterprise zones; and voted against Governor Tommy Thompson's workfare plan. Feingold also opposed efforts to combat welfare fraud by verification of income and assets.

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Where Feingold has been a paleoliberal, Kasten has proved to be one of the Senate's more creative members. He has also been an unusually savvy politician, surviving, for example, the 1986 bloodletting among GOP senators. This year, he has deftly distanced himself from President Bush's 1990 tax deal and has openly aligned himself with the Kemp-Gingrich wing of the party. He favors school choice, a balanced-budget amendment, term limits, and across-the-board tax cuts, like the ones that have helped spare Wisconsin from the recession's worst ravages.

None of this, however, may matter. On television, Feingold is appealing; even when he is calling for new taxes he is boyishly disarming. His campaign has relied on light-hearted home movies that portray the candidate as a down-to-earth, almost Capra-esque character--the sort of outsider who appeals to Wisconsin's independent streak.

Wisconsin has a long tradition of embracing political figures who might have been regarded elsewhere as eccentrics-from Fighting Bob La Follette to Joe McCarthy to Bill Proxmire. "Russ Feingold could very easily be the next Bill Proxmire; he could become a Wisconsin institution," says James Miller, president of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. "He's touched a nerve in this state and people really like him. It's not a question of ideology. It's just a strange mixture of style and culture where people arrive at a decision they really like a person."

Kasten's campaign does not underestimate the potency of Feingold's appeal. "If this race is about the issues, we win," says Kasten campaign chairman Richard Graber. "If it's about who has the cutest ads and who looks better on television ... we lose."

Kasten is a veteran of tough contests (he has never won more than 51 per cent of the vote), and he has not been afraid to take the campaign into Feingold's territory. Kasten's first post-primary television commercial was a take-off on one of Feingold's ads featuring an Elvis endorsement. In Kasten's spot, the King appears discussing Feingold's tax proposals, which, he says, leave him "all shook up." More seriously, Kasten has detailed the price tag for Feingold's taxes on average taxpayers.

For the balance of the campaign, Kasten will be trying to introduce the voters to a Russ Feingold they don't see in the television ads. Despite his endearing media persona, Feingold's penchant for grandstanding and moralizing has made him singularly unpopular among his fellow legislators. One calls him "an articulate whiner" and tells of the time he stormed out of the Democratic caucus because he didn't like the idea of cutting taxes. "He is like a petulant little kid," says another Democratic state senator.

He has often found himself isolated at the far end of the political spectrum. When, for example, the State Senate considered a bill that gave judges more latitude in delaying the release of convicted murderers, Feingold was one of only three senators to vote against it.

Perhaps most revealing of all was Feingold's shrill opposition to the Persian Gulf War. In the midst of the allied air strikes, Feingold sponsored a resolution calling for unilateral withdrawal. Reflecting a virulent anti-Americanism seldom seen in the halls of state government, his resolution declared that "U.S. military plans may include the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians," and resolved that "U.S. forces begin to withdraw from the Persian Gulf area immediately until their strength and numbers reach their level in the region prior to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait." [Emphasis added.] Presented forcefully, such tidbits from Feingold's record may cool the voters' ardor.

If, however, Robert Kasten can't pull it off, then, come January, Paul Wellstone of neighboring Minnesota will have company in the Senate's wacky-left caucus, and Wisconsin will have six years to repent its momentary infatuation.

COPYRIGHT 1992 National Review, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group




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