Clinton not key issue in Wisconsin

October 16, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

MILWAUKEE -- When this year's congressional campaign began, Republicans eyed freshman Sen. Russell Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, as one of the prime targets in their hopes to pick up five Senate seats that would give them the 60 needed for a veto-proof Senate.

Until August, however, GOP challenger Rep. Mark Neumann was well behind in early polls. Then came two unrelated developments -- President Clinton's "confession" of sexual misconduct in the White House and a heavy Neumann television campaign, while Mr. Feingold remained off the air.

Mr. Neumann's ads hammered hard but humorously at government waste, painting Mr. Feingold as a classic liberal spender. One showed a white-coated scientist bearing a glass jar and chasing the backside of a cow, to ridicule a study of cow flatulence in a broader bill supported by Mr. Feingold.

The ads had their intended impact. A poll of 600 Wisconsin voters conducted shortly after Labor Day, paid for by a Republican Party group, indicated that Mr. Neumann had surged into a virtual dead heat with Mr. Feingold.

Since then, Mr. Feingold has been on the air with clever ads of his own, one of them showing a bloated Uncle Sam whose protruding belly recedes as Mr. Feingold talks about his own efforts to wipe out the federal deficit.

Whether the president's predicament and Mr. Neumann's call for his resignation will propel him past the incumbent awaits the Nov. 3 election. If he wins, it will more likely be due to the fact that his ads were amusing and were aired in a vacuum, before Mr. Feingold began his own.

This Senate race is a classic matchup between a liberal incumbent and a conservative challenger, but for one exception -- Social Security, on which Mr. Neumann has broken with his own party and agrees with Mr. Feingold on Mr. Clinton's insistence that budget surpluses be used to make the retirement system solvent before approving any Republican-backed tax cuts.

Before Mr. Clinton's scandal blurred the political horizon, the Democrats hoped that Social Security once again would be a big political winner for them this fall. They hoped that painting the Republicans as short-sighted, tax-cut fanatics would revive the opposition party's image as insensitive critics of the system.

In any event, that strategy appeared to have failed because of the Clinton scandal. Mr. Feingold says that when independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report was released, he felt the brunt of public outrage.

But just as suddenly, Mr. Feingold says now, the ire against Mr. Clinton has stopped, or at least has gone unspoken, enabling him to focus on other issues. Mr. Neumann says he has also encountered close to "total silence" of late about the Clinton scandal.

The seeming irrelevancy of the Clinton scandal here leaves the candidates to compete over which of them is the true defender of the beleaguered Social Security system. Each is the sponsor of new legislation aimed at dealing with the long-term problem of Social Security solvency.

Mr. Feingold's seeks to make permanent the "pay as you go" requirement under last year's budget deal that stipulates no Social Security surpluses be used to cover overall budget deficits. Mr. Neumann proposes that federal treasury paper obligations -- he calls them IOUs -- against borrowed Social Security surpluses be replaced with "real money" to assure the system's solvency.

The distinctions between the two over Social Security are likely to be lost on most voters. But their competition is a reflection of how critical they see it as a voting issue this year.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 10/16/98

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