Greenville, Ala. - He came bearing bratwurst, on a mission of North-South diplomacy.
After drawing heat here over an article he wrote about his winter vacation in Alabama, Sen. Russ Feingold returned Monday to this small Southern city 40 miles southwest of Montgomery to "listen and learn."
What started last December with a simple golf trip evolved into one of the more unusual forays a Democrat with national ambitions could make - a three-day campaign-style swing through a state his party lost by 25 points in the 2004 presidential race.
"It has a kind of 'Alice in Wonderland' quality to it. Imagine George Bush campaigning in gay bars," observed University of Wisconsin political scientist Byron Shafer, who has a book coming out on the partisan transformation of the American South.
"This idea of red and blue states needs to end," Feingold told officials and reporters here, bemoaning the political divide in America and urging a new "dialogue"
This particular dialogue was sparked by a short article Feingold wrote last December for the liberal Web site Salon.com, after his post-election pilgrimage to Alabama's prized public golf courses.
Suggesting that working people in the South had backed George W. Bush "against their own families' basic interests," Feingold depicted the city of Greenville as "hurting economically," with "check-cashing stores and abject trailer parks."
The story coursed through the central Alabama media and drew rebukes from state and local officials, who complained that the portrait was unfair and untrue of a region they say is coming back from job woes that hit bottom in the late 1990s.
"It took on a life of its own," county economic development director Ricky McLaney said of the Salon piece.
"People were like, 'What's he talking about?' " said Dennis Palmer, publisher of the Greenville Advocate.
A phone call from mayor
Mayor Dexter McLendon gave Feingold a call.
"I just got on the phone and said, 'Senator, I didn't really like the (article). Can you come back down and let me show you this place that I love?' " said McLendon.
To the surprise of some, Feingold accepted, bringing along his wife, Mary, as well.
"People didn't think he'd have the gumption to come back down South," said Palmer, the publisher, who wrote a column before this week's visit saying Feingold had stereotyped the city and questioning whether his return was a "press op as he tries to position himself for a presidential run in 2008."
But Monday both guest and hosts were celebrating their exercise in outreach. McLendon termed Feingold "very easy to talk to." Feingold didn't disavow the article, which he contended was misconstrued. But he said of the mayor: "He's right. I did need to take a better look."
Deep South and Upper Midwest communed over breakfast grits and afternoon golf. Feingold presented McLendon with a bratwurst assortment, and the Greenville city attorney gave Feingold a book about Alabama's political history. Feingold used the occasion to present himself as a Democrat willing to venture into risky and unlikely waters.
Greenville officials used it as a promotional opportunity, showing off their newly built high school, their two new Korean-owned automotive factories and their cherished piece of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, an unusual statewide network of public courses that draws avid golfers from far and wide. All the while, Feingold took copious notes as a large Alabama press contingent looked on.
"We have had a wonderful time," Mayor McLendon declared, telling reporters the "real story" of the whole Salon flap is that a United States senator picked Greenville, Ala., to golf in.
Rather than stew, Feingold's hosts showered him with hospitality, inviting him to a city council meeting and an evening reception at a grand local home.
There, an attorney and bank president performed a "redneck" comedy routine that poked fun at Feingold, Alabama and both parties. They also serenaded Mary Feingold, a huge Bruce Springsteen fan, with a parody of Springsteen's "Fire," complete with lyrics about the trip.
"I was thrilled and delighted, and Bruce would have been, too," she said.
In response to a question from one of two local TV crews covering the visit, Feingold downplayed any connection between the visit and his potential interest in the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
"I'm not even thinking about that," he said.
But in Greenville it was commonly assumed that Feingold wouldn't be here if he didn't have national ambitions of some sort.
"He's obviously running for president," said the city attorney, Richard Hartley, a self-described "Yellow Dog Democrat" who said he was impressed by the visit and had no quarrel with the article that irritated others here.
"He seems to be conscientious. But I also think he has some plans later on probably to do some other things," Mayor McLendon said of Feingold's future. "He's looking around."
Feingold is funding the trip through a new political committee he created called the Progressive Patriots Fund, designed to enhance his national voice. In a recent interview, he said he would consider a presidential run if he thought it was viable and he was generating sufficient interest among grass-roots Democrats.
Connecting with voters
Of course, Feingold's higher aspirations don't entirely explain a trip to Alabama, a state where the Republican president garnered 62.5% of the vote last November - Bush's highest total in the old South. In his Salon piece, Feingold himself said Greenville seemed to "glow as the reddest spot on the whole map." (Butler County, home to Greenville, voted 59% to 41%Republican, well off Bush's best numbers nationally.)
At a news conference Monday, Feingold argued that Democrats should be doing better in the South. Asked why he thought they weren't, he said Republicans had succeeded in portraying the Democratic Party as reflexively big-government - a perception he disputed. He also said "they've got people believing we want to take away everybody's guns. That's not true. . . . We've got to push back on that."
Feingold told reporters here he helped write Wisconsin's right-to-bear-arms amendment, and that "the right to have a gun for self-defense, I think, is a constitutional right."
He also suggested that despite differences on hot social issues, Democrats could do a better job of connecting with Southern voters on such things as jobs, health care and trade. He plans further stops today and Wednesday in Montgomery and Birmingham.
"We've got to stop ignoring states in the country like Alabama that used to be such an important part of our coalition," he said.
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