ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Among the many U.S. senators seeking re-election this year is a three- term Democrat from Wisconsin, Russ Feingold. He has a reputation as an independent spirit, a liberal on social issues and foreign policy, but unpredictable in other areas. He often takes on his own party, reaching across the aisle - as he did with Republican John McCain, in writing the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.
A fourth term for Feingold had been considered a sure bet. But suddenly, polls show the race to be far closer than expected.
NPR's Don Gonyea reports.
DON GONYEA: Six years ago, even as President Bush was winning re- election, one of his sharpest critics on the Iraq War, Democrat Russ Feingold, won his own re-election by double digits. But any notion that Feingold would have such an easy road this year was shattered by a recent poll, giving him just a narrow lead over an opponent who's new to politics; a wealthy conservative businessman from Oshkosh who introduced himself to voters in this TV spot.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
U: He's a family man. He wants good jobs, and everything good for everyone. He even loves apple pie...
NORRIS: Had enough of these phony political commercials? I'm Ron Johnson. I believe Congress is squandering America's future with reckless amounts of spending and debt.
GONYEA: The state GOP had hoped former Governor Tommy Thompson would run. He didn't, so Ron Johnson got in and is prepared to spend millions of his own money to win. He got the state party's backing at its convention last month, and is expected to win the September primary. He's also gone after Tea Party voters. Here he is at their rally in Madison on tax day, April 15th.
NORRIS: America needs to be pulled back from the brink of socialism and state control.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)
GONYEA: Johnson is attacking Senator Feingold as a big spender for voting for the economic stimulus package, and for supporting the overhaul of health care.
But Feingold is pushing back hard. He says the health-care bill will reduce the deficit. And he's highlighting his independent nature, including his current opposition to a financial regulatory reform bill that the White House wants, but which he says won't prevent another crisis.
This Feingold radio ad began airing last week.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
SIEGEL: I listened to you, and opposed bailouts and bonuses for the big banks on Wall Street. Now, that hasn't won me a lot of new friends in Washington, but neither does my fight to stop pay raises for Congress. In Wisconsin, we don't spend money we don't have. We pinch our pennies.
GONYEA: And Feingold is painting Ron Johnson as too extreme for Wisconsin. He cites Johnson's courting of Tea Party voters, Johnson's description of Social Security as a Ponzi scheme. And Feingold has gone after Johnson for backing the extension of Bush-era tax cuts.
SIEGEL: And he simply ignores the fact that the Bush administration took us $10 trillion into debt. And Mr. Johnson wants more tax cuts for people like himself. So he has absolutely no plan to reduce the deficit.
GONYEA: Feingold has also criticized Johnson for saying the BP oil spill highlights the need to drill in places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Last week, Johnson's financial disclosure report also revealed that he owns between $100,000 and $300,000 worth of BP stock, as well as other oil stocks. Johnson does blame BP for the disaster in the Gulf, but he also cautions against government overreaction.
NORRIS: It's not like we have not too little regulation; we have too many people over-regulating and not effectively regulating.
GONYEA: It's a clear choice for Wisconsin voters, a state where there is continued frustration over the economy.
Jeff Mayers, who watches state politics at the site WisPolitics.com, says it was unrealistic to think this Senate race would be anything but close.
NORRIS: We shouldn't be all that surprised. I mean, landslides really are rare here.
GONYEA: That's because Wisconsin voters are evenly divided among Democrats, Republicans and independents. Everyone knows that Republicans are more enthusiastic than Democrats this year. But the Feingold campaign promises that its base will turn out, including voters like 62- year-old Brenda Kay Stone, in Janesville.
NORRIS: I think he's doing a fine job. And I think everybody in Wisconsin needs to wake up and do a little more, and just pay attention.
GONYEA: But independent voters will likely decide the election and here, Feingold needs to overcome the same concerns that have cost President Obama independent support.
Forty-nine-year-old Tim Dake is an unemployed engineer, and an independent worried about spending. His take on Feingold?
NORRIS: I have voted for him in the past, particularly because of his objection to the Patriot Act. But the last few years, I've become very disenchanted with him.
GONYEA: For Republicans, just having a race in Wisconsin is good news, whether they capture the seat or not. Adding more competitive contests to this year's list means Democrats will have to spend more money in more places, and defend more turf. Republicans say all of that shows just how far they've already come back from 2008.
Don Gonyea, NPR News.