Wisconsin's Feingold Faces A Fight The three-term Democratic senator from Wisconsin has gone from being considered a sure bet for re-election to being in a close race against a wealthy Republican candidate.

Wisconsin's Feingold Faces A Fight

Wisconsin's Feingold Faces A Fight

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Once thought to be a sure bet for re-election, Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin now looks to be facing a close race against a wealthy Republican candidate.

Sen. Russell Feingold (D-WI), with Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA). Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

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Alex Wong/Getty Images

Sen. Russell Feingold (D-WI), with Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA).

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Feingold has a reputation as an independent spirit -- a liberal on social issues and foreign policy, but less predictable in other areas. He often takes on his own party. And he's known for reaching across the aisle, as he did with Republican Sen. John McCain in writing the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.

But suddenly, polls show his race to be far closer than expected.

Feingold didn't have any trouble the last time he ran. When President Bush was winning re-election six years ago, Feingold was coasting to a third term by a solid 11 percentage point margin. But any notion that the senator would have such an easy road this year was shattered by a recent survey from Public Policy Polling, which give him a very narrow lead over an opponent who's new to politics -- Ron Johnson, a wealthy and conservative businessman from Oshkosh who is favored to win the GOP nomination.

Johnson Runs Against Washington

In a tongue-in-cheek TV spot introducing Johnson to voters, a husky-voiced narrator intones, "He's a family man. He wants good jobs and everything good for everyone. He even loves apple pie."

In the ad, Johnson then asks viewers if they're tired of "phony" commercials, and sums up his position: "I'm Ron Johnson. I believe Congress is squandering America's future with reckless amounts of spending and debt."

Johnson has said he decided to run when he saw a political analyst on Fox News wondering why a senator like Feingold, in a swing state like Wisconsin, had no serious opposition. The state GOP had hoped former Gov. Tommy Thompson would run. He didn't -- so Johnson got in. And he's prepared to spend millions of his own money to win. Last month, he got the state party's backing at its convention.

Republican candidate Ron Johnson at a forum last month. Dinesh Ramde/AP hide caption

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Dinesh Ramde/AP

Republican candidate Ron Johnson at a forum last month.

Dinesh Ramde/AP

Like other outsider candidates this year, Johnson is running against Washington, and a government that he says has grown too big. Speaking at a Tea Party rally in Madison on Tax Day in April, he said, "America needs to be pulled back from the brink of socialism and state control."

Johnson is attacking Feingold as a big spender for voting for the economic stimulus package, and for supporting the overhaul of health care.

Feingold Stresses Independence

But Feingold is pushing back hard. He says the health care bill will reduce the deficit. And he is highlighting his independent nature, including his opposition to a financial regulatory reform bill that the White House wants, but which Feingold says won't prevent another crisis.

In a radio ad that began airing last week, Feingold tells voters, "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."

And Feingold is painting Johnson as too extreme for Wisconsin. He cites Johnson's courting of Tea Party voters, and Johnson's description of Social Security as a Ponzi scheme. And he's gone after Johnson for backing the extension of Bush-era tax cuts.

"He simply ignores the fact that the Bush administration took us $10 trillion into debt," Feingold said. "And Mr. Johnson wants more tax cuts for people like himself. So he has absolutely no plan to reduce the deficit."

Feingold has also criticized Johnson for saying the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico highlights the need to drill in places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Last week, Johnson's financial disclosure report revealed that he owns a couple hundred thousand dollars' worth of BP stock. He says he expects to sell the shares before taking office. Johnson does blame BP for the disaster in the Gulf -- but he also cautions against government overreaction.

"It's not like we have not too little regulation -- we have too many people overregulating and not effectively regulating," he said.

Independents Will Be Critical

It is a clear choice for voters in Wisconsin, 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.

"We shouldn't be all that surprised," Mayers says. "I mean, landslides really are rare here."

That's because Wisconsin voters are evenly divided among Democrats, Republicans and independents. Polls make it clear that Republicans are more enthusiastic than Democrats this year -- which could help Johnson. But the Feingold campaign promises that its base will turn out -- including voters like Brenda Kay Stone, 62, who lives in Feingold's hometown of Janesville.

"Well, he's paying attention," Stone says. "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."

But independent voters will very likely decide this election -- and that means Feingold must overcome the same concerns that have led independents' support of President Obama to fall off.

Tim Dake, 49, is an unemployed engineer, and an independent worried about spending. Asked for his take on Feingold, he says, "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."

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 that all shows how far they've already come back from 2008.