'Roger and Me' campaign succeeding in Wisconsin ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

October 26, 1992|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

MILWAUKEE -- If, as they say, imitation is the highest form of flattery, Democratic Senate candidate Russ Feingold in his challenge to 12-year Republican Sen. Bob Kasten is giving a big pat on the back to his northern neighbor, Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota.

Feingold has taken a page from the book on Wellstone's 1990 upset of Republican Sen. Rudy Boschwitz with a series of clever, low-budget television commercials that in a relatively short period of time has made the 39-year-old state senator from the Madison area very close to a household name, as Wellstone's ads did for him.

Two years ago, Wellstone himself -- or, rather, his advertising agency -- borrowed a trick from low-budget moviemaker Michael Moore in his critical film of General Motors, "Roger and Me," in which Moore depicted himself traveling around trying to corner the elusive GM president, Roger Smith. Wellstone undertook a similar filmed pursuit of Boschwitz and also showed the modest suburban home in which he himself lived.

In a three-way primary, Feingold's ads showed him trying to encounter his two well-heeled Democratic opponents at their impressive homes.

One of them had a vacation home in Jamaica but Feingold merely held up a tourism brochure in the ad, saying he couldn't afford to go there himself.

He also ran an ad showing the two Democrats, Rep. Jim Moody and wealthy businessman Joe Checota, who were waging highly negative campaigns against each other, getting hit with mud as he stood aside.

The result from an apparently disgusted Democratic electorate gave Feingold an astounding 70 percent of the September primary vote.

On the strength of that showing, the little-known state legislator soared to a 23-point lead over incumbent Kasten in a Milwaukee Journal poll released immediately after the primary.

Kasten has been struggling ever since to close the gap, painting Feingold as a classic liberal tax-and-spender as a result of the Democrat's call for $323 billion in federal tax increases over five years. Feingold also calls for about $690 billion in spending cuts, but Kasten doesn't talk about that.

Kasten also has taken some tips from the 1990 Minnesota Senate race, asking his former Senate colleague, the defeated Boschwitz, what lessons he learned from the upset he suffered at the hands of a relative unknown. As a result, Kasten has set out to "define" Feingold on two main issues, taxes and crime, and on both Feingold insists his GOP opponent has distorted his record, not defined it.

In a current television ad, Feingold is seen stating his positions on these and other issues, and then a photo of him with a puppet-like mouth going up and down while a Kasten charge is repeated. Feingold tells the viewers he has an "evil twin," and at the end of the commercial the photo of himself falls away and reveals a photo of Kasten.

Kasten has been particularly hard-hitting on Feingold's opposition to the death penalty and his reservations about a state bill requiring life sentence without parole in certain cases of capital offenses.

A voter-identification survey by a firm hired by Kasten was asking voters if they would support somebody who would put mass murderers like Jeffrey Dahmer, Wisconsin's convicted mutilation murderer, back on the streets after only 13 years and 4 months in prison under old parole regulations.

When Kasten was confronted with the use of Dahmer's name in the survey, he said he knew nothing about it, called it a mistake and had its use discontinued.

But Feingold insists it was no mistake, and has pointed to the incident as only the latest example of a Kasten penchant for negative tactics near the end of a close race, which as a candidate he has always had.

The latest Milwaukee Journal poll suggests that Kasten's "defining" of Feingold has taken its toll, reducing his huge lead to only 3 percentage points.

But Bob Decheine, Feingold's campaign manager, says his polling indicates his candidate retains a healthy lead over Kasten, a loyal Reaganite who broke with President Bush on his budget compromise and who is keeping at arm's length from him now.

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